It seemed like such a good deal to town officials - then.
Image Plus International, a national telemarketing firm that sells office products to businesses, wanted to move its sales operation to Toquerville, Washington County. It would hire local residents to do phone soliciting, thereby providing a big boost to the local economy - not to mention local tax coffers.What Image Plus never told local officials was that it had just been run out of St. George. Or that before that, the FBI had chased it out of Las Vegas. Or that before that it had to leave California, which came on the heels of its being invited out of Phoenix.
Six weeks after Image Plus moved to Toquerville, it was closed down by the Utah Division of Investigations. The operation - commonly referred to as a boiler room - generated $5,000 a day in revenue - revenue Utah investigators say came from businessmen and professionals who never got what they were promised.
Quite simply, they were victims of telemarketing fraud, a rampant problem that has found fertile ground in Utah.
In fact, agents with the state Division of Investigations - who inherited telemarketing investigations because no one else was doing them - receive about two new cases of telemarketing fraud every day.
"There are a phenomenal amount of people involved in scams right now," said Scott Mann, an agent with the Division of Investigations. "You can't believe how bad it is, and it's getting worse. And they are bringing in incredible amounts of money - $10,000, $20,000, $30,000 a day."
There's not a whole lot investigators can do to put a stop to it. Existing laws are inadequate to deal with telemarketing fraud, said Mann, and investigators are not getting a lot of help from lawmakers.
Earlier this year the 1989 Legislature and some state economic development officials argued against regulating the telemarketing industry, saying Utah was on its way to becoming the telemarketing capital of America, which is good for Utah's economic development. Regulation would discourage companies from moving to Utah.
Law officers, however, say Utah's climate of non-regulation is making Utah the telemarketing fraud capital of the nation.
"Las Vegas and cities in California are tightening up their regulation of telemarketing, and the fraudulent ones have begun moving into Utah where we don't have any regulations," said Mann.
And in the helter-skelter rush for "economic development," Utah communities are welcoming these companies with open arms, never stopping to realize the operation could be fraudulent. All that towns like Toquerville see is a company offering badly needed jobs, said Mann.
"It's so easy to set up a boiler room in Utah," said Mann. "Anyone who can afford office space and telephone lines can set up a business. And if they're calling out of state, chances are they will never be caught. It's the perfect scam."
If they do get caught, they simply change the name and move the operation to a new town, making civil remedies nearly impossible.
Some of the operations use Utah strictly as a base of operations to call other states, realizing that Utah is not going to go to the trouble and expense of bringing in witnesses from around the nation on individual frauds that may total only $50.
Other operations, however, are not so careful, instead relying on the practice of four or five weeks in one location, then off to another before investigators can gear up a fraud probe. In one recent telemarketing fraud in Salt Lake County, the operation hopscotched its way around the valley, setting up shop in six different places while bilking about 600 Salt Lake business out of $18,000.
"At $30 a pop, most of the victims didn't even report it. They just chalked it up to a lesson learned," said Mann. "That's the why these operations are successful; most people never report them because the amount may not seem significant."
For the most part, most police agencies are content to pressure the companies into leaving their particular city, which only pushes the problem onto someone else.
"What we need is to work with legitimate telemarketing companies to clean up the business," said Mann. "No one likes regulation, but the problem is getting so bad it has to hurt the legitimate firms. They should be the first ones at our door to help develop legislation and education programs."
Be very wary
- If a salesman says something is actually worth $150, but you only have to pay $50, then it's probably worth $25.
- Any sales pitch requiring immediate payment, usually by overnight carrier, is probably a fraud.
- Be wary of sales pitches appealing to your patriotism.
- Ditto any sales pitch appealing to your religion or that showers you with "God bless you."
- Most frauds involve less than $100.
- If you suspect that you are the victim of telemarketing fraud, contact the Division of Consumer Protection, 530-6601, and/or the Division of Investigation, 533-6251.