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Federal regulators are suing five members of a St. George family and their network of companies, alleging they took in more than $24 million by fraudulently billing consumers using information purchased from payday-loan companies.
One son of owner and CEO Steven Sunyich even allegedly told an investigator his father was a "scammer."
A federal judge in Las Vegas has signed a temporary restraining order and frozen the assets of the main Sunyich company, Ideal Financial Solutions, and those of Sunyich, four of his children and related companies. U.S. District Court Judge Miranda M. Du also appointed a receiver, who has now taken over the companies and seized assets and records.
None of the Sunyich family members could be reached Thursday for comment. An attorney representing them also did not immediately return a call.
In a lawsuit filed under seal late last month, the Federal Trade Commission accused the Sunyiches of conducting a massive fraud operation since at least January 2009 that preyed on tens of thousands of consumers by making unauthorized withdrawals on bank accounts or charges on credit cards without providing or even attempting to sell them any products.
Ideal Financial Solutions purported to sell financial-management and debt-relief products. But that company and related entities most registered in Nevada but run out of St. George did not even have a sales force, court documents state.
"Prior to the unauthorized debit or credit card charges, consumers have never come into contact with defendants," the FTC complaint says. "Therefore, consumers have not authorized defendants to take their money."
When consumers phoned the company's St. George call center to complain, court documents say, they were provided no information or lied to about the origin of the charges; some were even pitched other products.
The companies had extremely high rates of return of monies to consumers, a red flag for banks and credit-card companies watching for fraud. Because of those high rates, the FTC says, the companies took steps to manipulate those figures.
The operation also used a number of shell companies, mail drops and websites to avoid detection, the lawsuit says.
The court-appointed receiver, Thomas McNamara of the law firm Ballard Spahr of San Diego, said that when he entered the St. George company offices Feb. 1, he found little activity and few employees.
"The operations have been suspended," McNamara wrote in an email.
Among others, he interviewed Steven Sunyich, who allegedly blamed another company officer for fraudulent activities. But McNamara, in a report to the Las Vegas court, said Sunyich's eldest child, Shawn, "commenced our meeting by offering an unapologetic opinion that his father was a scammer."
The operation came to the FTC's attention through an investigation of complaints by the Utah Division of Consumer Protection, Utah officials said Thursday.
Utah investigator Glen Minson said in a court document that he and others began the inquiry after consumer complaints about a company called Avanix, which was registered in Reno, Nev.
However, in cooperation Nevada authorities, investigators learned that the company's Reno address was a drop box from which mail was sent to St. George. Minson found that address, too, was a drop box, which he traced to Michael Sunyich at a St. George office building where the Sunyich companies were housed. Utah authorities turned over the case to the FTC, which also had received a large number of complaints.
"When the Division of Consumer Protection received a complaint about Ideal Financial Solutions, our investigators discovered multiple FTC complaints so we referred our case to the feds for prosecution," said Francine Giani, executive director of the Utah Department of Commerce, who applauded the FTC action "against this group who were more interested in lining their own pockets than respecting consumers' rights."
In 2010, the Utah Division of Securities reached an agreement with Steven Sunyich and his daughter Melissa Joy Sunyich after they were accused of not disclosing information to an investor before receiving $200,000 that was to be invested in a company called Founder's Capital.
Founder's Capital was controlled by Rick Koerber, a Utah businessman who is facing federal criminal charges that allege he ran a Ponzi scheme that took in some $100 million.
Koerber denies the allegations and his case remains pending in federal court in Salt Lake City.
The FTC is seeking a permanent injunction against the Sunyiches and their companies to prevent further violations of federal laws and wants a judge to order as yet other-unspecified penalties.
People and companies named as defendants in a Federal Trade Commission lawsuit include:
People • Steven Leon Sunyich and his children, Michael, Christopher, Shawn and Melissa Sunyich Gardner; and Kent Brown.
Companies • Ideal Financial Solutions Inc., Bracknell Shores Ltd., Chandon Group Inc., Ascot Crossing LLC, Avanix LLC and Fiscal Fitness LLC.