The Federal District Court in Oregon has frozen the assets of Beaverton-based Merchant Processing, Inc. (MPI), its owner, and affiliated companies. The court ordered a temporary halt to claims the Federal Trade Commission alleges are deceptive, and appointed a receiver to temporarily take control of the business. The FTC alleges that the defendants used deceptive tactics to sell credit and debit card processing services to thousands of small businesses across the county. The Washington State Attorney General’s Office also has sued the defendants.
In its complaint, the FTC alleges the operation falsely promised that it would save the small businesses money and that it would buy out the merchants’ existing equipment leases, often worth thousands of dollars. The FTC also charged the defendants with failing to disclose fees and concealing pages of fine print from the merchants until after they had already signed contracts. The FTC charged MPI, its owner, Aaron Lee Rian, and affiliated companies Vequity Financial Group and Direct Merchant Processing with violating the FTC Act.
According to the FTC’s complaint, the defendants’ sales representatives call and visit small businesses around the United States and promise they can save them hundreds to thousands of dollars a year in processing fees by offering lower rates than the merchants’ current credit card processing service. They also tell the merchants that the credit card swipe equipment they currently are using is outdated or incompatible with their systems, or that the merchants will need to replace their systems in order to get the special low rate.
Many merchants already are under a contract to lease their card swipe equipment, but the defendants claim they will buy out the merchants’ current leases if they sign a new, usually more expensive, lease. With the claimed lower processing rates, the sales agents promise overall savings despite the higher lease payments. The FTC alleges the defendants’ agents then have the merchants sign third-party equipment leases and processing agreements while concealing pages of fine print. According to the FTC, the sales representatives often don’t leave copies of the agreements with the merchants.
The merchants soon find their fees are not lower, and they end up paying additional fees that they weren’t told about. MPI does not buy out their previous equipment leases, so merchants often end up paying on two leases or spending thousands of dollars to get out of the old lease. Then, to cancel the new, more expensive processing service, the merchants must pay a substantial, previously undisclosed cancellation fee.
The FTC also is seeking preliminary and permanent injunctions halting the deceptive claims and unfair practices, and refunds for the small businesses.
The FTC acknowledges the valuable assistance of the Oregon Department of Justice and the Washington State Attorney General’s Office.
The Commission vote to authorize staff to file the complaint was 5-0. The complaint was filed under seal in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon on April 11, 2007.
NOTE: The Commission files a complaint when it has “reason to believe” that the law has been or is being violated, and it appears to the Commission that a proceeding is in the public interest. The complaint is not a finding or ruling that the defendant has actually violated the law. The case will be decided by the court.
Copies of the complaint are available from the FTC’s Web site at http://www.ftc.gov and also from the FTC’s Consumer Response Center, Room 130, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580. The FTC works for the consumer to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish or to get free information on any of 150 consumer topics, call toll-free, 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357), or use the complaint form at http://www.ftc.gov/ftc/complaint.htm. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft, and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to more than 1,600 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.