A federal court has halted an international scheme that used identity theft to place more than $10 million in charges on consumers’ credit and debit cards.

The defendants, using phony company names resembling real companies, and information taken from identity theft victims in the U.S., opened more than 100 merchant accounts with companies that process charges to consumers’ credit and debit card accounts, according to a Federal Trade Commission complaint.

More than a million consumers were hit with one-time charges of $10 or less, and their payments were routed through dummy corporations in the U.S. to bank accounts in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

The defendants include the sham companies: API Trade LLC, ARA Auto Parts Trading LLC, Bend Transfer Services LLC, B-Texas European LLC, CBTC LLC, CMG Global LLC, Confident Incorporation, HDPL Trade LLC, Hometown Homebuyers LLC, IAS Group LLC, IHC Trade LLC, MZ Services LLC, New World Enterprizes LLC, Parts Imports LLC, SMI Imports LLC and SVT Services LLC.

The FTC charged them with making unauthorized charges to consumers’ credit cards in violation of the FTC Act. The court froze the defendants’ assets and ordered them to stop operating, pending final resolution of the case. Judge Ronald A. Guzman in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, entered the preliminary injunction.

The FTC believes the defendants may have run credit checks on the identity theft victims first, to be sure they were creditworthy. The defendants then cloaked each fake merchant with a virtual office address near a real merchant’s location, a phone number, a home phone number for the "owner," a Web site pretending to sell products, a toll-free number consumers could call and a real company’s tax number found on the Internet.

The FTC alleged that with spam e-mail, the defendants recruited at least 14 so-called money mules - individuals in the U.S. they paid to form 16 dummy corporations, open associated bank accounts to receive the card payments and transfer the money overseas.

The defendants used debit cards linked to these bank accounts to set up telephone service, virtual addresses and Web sites that helped deceive the card processors, according to the complaint.

The money mules responded to spam e-mail pretending to seek a U.S. finance manager for an international financial services company. The FTC has not determined how the defendants obtained the stolen identities or consumers’ credit and debit account numbers. Consumers’ payments were sent to bank accounts in Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Kyrgyzstan.

None of the consumers affected by the scam had contact with any of the defendants. Most consumers either did not notice the charges on their bills or did not seek chargebacks because of the small amounts. The charges ranged from 20 cents to $10. Consumers who called the toll-free numbers that appeared on their bills either found them disconnected or heard recorded messages instructing them to leave a message, but no calls were returned.

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