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SO FL SUN-SENTINEL
Credit Schemes Target Hispanics
By Sandra Hernandez
20 January 2005
WESTON · Elián Degen considered himself a prudent man, indulging in few luxuries since arriving in Florida two years ago.
But when Degen saw a Spanish-language TV ad promising a Pro-Line credit card to viewers without previous credit histories or Social Security card numbers, the 52-year-old Venezuelan paid close attention.
He dialed the telephone number on the screen and applied. But within minutes of hanging up the phone Degen felt uneasy. He called back to cancel and his problems began: Telephone callers threatened him with prosecution unless he sent them the $299 processing fee.
Like thousands of Hispanics across the United States, Degen found himself caught in a scheme. Until recently, many of these frauds went unreported and undetected by the Federal Trade Commission despite boldly placed ads on Spanish-language TV networks and radio stations.
But the Federal Trade Commission is cracking down on the growing number of schemes targeting Latinos, which range from advance fee cards to ineffective weight-loss programs. Last year, the FTC filed cases against 19 companies, with at least five filed in Florida and California, including the Miami-based Pro-line company that nearly duped Degen, officials said.
"This is really a recognition that we had to do something because Hispanics make up a sizeable share of consumers and they are being targeted," said Laura Koss, coordinator for the FTC's Hispanic initiative. "This is a recognition that Hispanics' buying power is growing."
In addition to filing federal court complaints, the agency recently began running Spanish-language public service announcements as well as working with community groups to warn consumers against such schemes. The agency has also started monitoring Spanish broadcasts and filing complaints with a national database, said Koss.
Such schemes are not new, but officials insist those targeting Hispanics often show more hubris.
"Most of the English language scams may advertise late at night on some small local cable station, but the calls we got indicated these Pro-Line ads and others are being run on major stations and networks," said Brodie White, of the Better Business Bureau's Palm West Beach County office. "I started to see an increase [in complaints] and realized these were old-school scams that were being directed at a new market."
Pro-Line is currently in settlement talks. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel was unable to reach the Spanish-language networks Telemundo or Univision for a comment.
White's office, which oversees complaints from Vero Beach to Puerto Rico, logged 168 complaints and more than 1,000 inquiries against Pro-line Card and its affiliates, La Familia Group and Call Center Express. Officials said the affiliates ran the same advance-fee credit-card scheme. Degen eventually reported the company to the
Better Business Bureau and the calls stopped.
In the case filed in September against Pro-Line and six people in federal court, the FTC alleged the company engaged in deceptive trade practices.