New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman came to Watertown Tuesday with some good news for Fort Drum soldiers who were allegedly the target of a scam.
Schneiderman said 'SmartBuy,' an electronics retailer which operated a store in Watertown's Salmon Run Mall, targeted members of the military for finance agreements that jacked up the price of computers and other electronics by a staggering amount.
Specialist Joseph Latarte, a Fort Drum soldier, spent $6,000 on a laptop worth $2,000.
"They need to take a real good look in the mirror and think about what they're doing to all of us in the uniformed services," said Latarte.
The AG announced his office reached a $3.5 million settlement with the financing company, which means hundreds of soldiers are being relieved of their financial debt.
Their credit history will also be restored.
"The last thing any soldier should have on their mind is the fact that they were the victim of a scam back home that haunts them even when they're overseas," said Schneiderman.
According to the AG, his investigators found that SmartBuy peddled products that were bought at places like Wal-Mart, marked them up 225 to 325 percent above the original retail price and financed the sales illegally.
From 2005 to April 2010, SmartBuy was part of the Salmon Run Mall as a kiosk.
It abruptly shut its doors after it learned the attorney general's office was investigating its business practices.
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The following is a news release from the AG's Office:
Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman today announced that his office has secured a $3.5 million settlement with a financing company that will result in hundreds of soldiers being relieved of their financial debt.
Rome Finance Co., Inc., of California operated as the financing company for SmartBuy, a storefront electronics retailer.
Through its Bankruptcy Trustee, Rome Finance has agreed to relieve soldiers of their debt with that company and take the necessary steps to restore the credit history of hundreds of those adversely impacted.
The Attorney General's office is engaged in ongoing litigation with the main retailer, SmartBuy and a number of its other finance companies.
"This company took advantage of service members using deceptive practices and roping them into high interest contracts and ruining their credit ratings," said Attorney General Schneiderman. "While fighting overseas, this is the last thing these soldiers needed to be worried about at home."
Last year, the Attorney General's office began investigating a kiosk and small storefront at the Salmon Run Mall, near Fort Drum when it appeared to be marketing specifically to soldiers.
Sales clerks would aggressively push the sales of electronic equipment such as laptops, gaming systems and flat screen televisions to soldiers.
At the time of the sale, SmartBuy sales representatives would not take cash payments for the merchandise and instead pressured soldiers to enter into payment contracts with hidden fees and exorbitant interest rates.
The investigation revealed that the SmartBuy's Salmon Run Mall Kiosk was part of a larger scheme to defraud service members by deceptively reselling them computers and electronics at wildly inflated prices, and locking the soldiers into revolving credit agreements with undisclosed fees and very high interest rates--all paid directly from military paychecks to unlicensed lenders.
SmartBuy purchased merchandise from stores like Sam's Club, Costco, and Walmart.
The items were then marked up by 200-325 percent, then included an added interest of 10-25 percent.
The interest rates averaged out at 244 percent.
The storefront, "SmartBuy," abruptly ceased local operations in 2010 upon learning of the Attorney General's demands that it cease its deceptive business practices and reimburse defrauded soldiers.
The Attorney General's office commenced suit against all involved parties in April 2010.
Litigation is currently underway in New York State Supreme Court in Jefferson County against the remaining solvent companies.
The five affiliated entities include, Frisco Marketing of N.Y., LLC, doing business as SmartBuy and SmartBuy Computers and Electronics; Integrity Financial of North Carolina, Inc.; Britlee, Inc.; GJS Management, Inc.; and Rome Finance Co. LLC, all owned and/or operated by Fayetteville, N.C.-based John Paul Jordan, Stuart Jordan and Rebecca Wirt, and Concord, California-based William Collins and Ronald Wilson.
According to the terms of the Attorney General's settlement, Rome Finance Co., Inc., the first financing company to settle, will release approximately 995 soldiers who entered into contracts in the State of New York, or who sought protection in New York State.
The value of this first resolution with the bankrupt defendant is $3,530,090.58 of relieved debt, and represents a significant step forward in this litigation.
The investigation revealed that hundreds of soldiers fell victim to SmartBuy's actions, including:
- A US Army soldier who purchased an HP 6433 laptop in August 2007 - She was told the price would be $3,868.93. She later found the exact same computer for $1,000.00. Rome Financing would not allow her to pay off her balance early to avoid paying additional interest.
- A US Army soldier who purchased a Sony FS520 laptop in May 2005 -His base price was $3,208.93 not including 19.2% interest. This laptop regularly retails for approximately $1,229.99. He currently owes over $6,000.00 due to Rome Financing. In June 2010, he started receiving messages on his MySpace account from a collection agent at Rome Finance.
- A recently enlisted soldier purchased a computer to stay in touch with friends and family back home. He signed a contract to pay $126 a month plus fees. The loan turned out to be $3,446.92, plus additional undisclosed fees. The computer broke after 13 months. When he complained about the high price and no warranty, he was offered a new laptop but only if he'd sign a waiver promising he would not take legal action. He declined.
This matter is being handled by Attorney General In-Charge for the Watertown Regional Office, Deanna Nelson under the supervision of Deputy Attorney General for Regional Affairs Martin J. Mack.