By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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By Sean Pendergast
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With one phone call, the head guy moves the money from a U.S. post office box to Montreal.
The money fuels the phones in the boiler rooms, where the worker bees sell the stories that bring the checks. You have just won the lottery. You've been approved for this credit card. You qualify for a government grant. The marks on the other end of the toll-free line think they're talking to someone in the States, because that's where they'll send their money.
Using the primitive tools of a Houston P.O. box and a slapdash Web site registered through a third party, the folks behind MGR Solutions, a.k.a. MGR Today and a million other names, have been able to operate anonymously while racking up hundreds of consumer complaints across the country. By promising to help people land big government grants for education, housing or business, MGR has been able to grab its piece of a broader telemarketing scheme that U.S. Customs officials say costs consumers and businesses $700 million a year.
Nine years ago, U.S. and Canadian authorities formed a task force called Project COLT to crack down on cross-border telemarketing fraud. While the force has made dozens of arrests and recovered millions of dollars, for every boiler room they uncover, there are many more to take their place. For now, it seems, it's every consumer for him or herself.
Here's an example of what kind of people the friendly representatives at MGR can be:
Sheree Ross lives in Houston, where she works for a wastewater management company. Last year, her grandmother became ill and moved into Ross's home until they found her a good assisted living center. Her grandmother had been living in a trailer home on two lots in the Fifth Ward. Under the Homestead Act, Ross's grandmother became responsible for the taxes she had previously been exempt from having to pay.
One of Ross's coworkers mentioned a company she found online that helped people get thousands of dollars in federal grants. "Let Uncle Sam finance your business dream with a small business grant," proclaimed MGR's Web site. For a fee of $300-$400, MGR — which used a Memorial Drive address — would write and submit a highly specified grant proposal on the customer's behalf. While the advance fee might be a bit of a burden for some people, the company said it was worth it, that a few hundred could wind up bringing in a $25,000 grant. Plus, there was a "100 percent satisfaction guarantee."
Ross figured she could use the money to pay off her grandmother's land and to open a nonprofit animal shelter. Ross has always been an animal person. She rescued a few dogs abandoned after Hurricane Katrina, and is always taking in strays.
Ross says she left a message on MGR's toll-free line and immediately got a call back. The helpful grants adviser asked Ross a bunch of questions to see if she was even eligible for a grant. Income, criminal history, number of dependents. All that was needed now was a $389 money order to pay MGR's "underwriters" to prepare a proposal. Ross would have to fill out a questionnaire and sign a sketchy "disclosure agreement" that appears to have been cobbled together by someone who flunked out of an online law school.
Soon enough, the helpful grants adviser told Ross she qualified for a $32,000 grant. The advisor may well have told Ross she qualified for $1 billion.
"I ended up losing the property as well, because I didn't get the [grant] that, you know, never existed," Ross says. Looking back on it now, she realizes that she should've been more aware of the clues, as in how she would always get the same customer service rep every time she called in.
"I'm like, 'Man, they must not be a large call center'..." Ross says now.
Dozens of people with experiences similar to Ross's have shared their stories on consumer Web site www.ripoffreport.com. Hundreds have filed complaints with Better Business Bureau offices in Houston and elsewhere.
After a while, MGR reps just stopped answering the phone. If you go to MGR's Web site today, all you'll see is a message from Go Daddy, a Web domain registrar, telling the owner of the site to call Go Daddy's billing department. [This might be a good time to mention that, since no one behind MGR apparently uses real names, it was difficult to contact any company representatives for this story. No one from MGR responded to multiple voice mails and e-mails, and the company apparently has only issued one press release ever.]
And MGR no longer uses a Houston address — but that has nothing to do with the 22 complaints filed with the Texas Attorney General's Houston office. Actually, MGR lost its Houston address long before it abandoned its phone line and Web site.
Barry Wisnevitz, founder of U.S. Global Mail, where MGR rented a drop box, terminated MGR's account after doing some of his own research. After so many angry MGR customers came to his business demanding to speak with someone from MGR, Wisnevitz says, he wanted to find out more about the company.