'They saved my bacon'

An elderly Medford woman scammed by an out-of-state telemarketing company credits local and state organizations for getting her money returned — possibly with interest.

"They saved my bacon," said 87-year-old Ilene Ogier, referring to her credit union, senior services advisers and the Oregon Department of Justice.

Ogier's husband recently had entered a nursing home. Faced with mounting expenses, Ogier said she tried more traditional investment avenues before she began looking online for a way to increase her $14,000 nest egg.

"I am embarrassed. I know it was probably a dangerous place to look," Ogier said. "But it was a real polished, professional-sounding presentation."

Ogier and others came across an Arizona-based telemarketing company that successfully pitched its home-based business scheme to more than 100 Oregonians.

"I am sickened by Internet-related scams that target our senior citizens, many of whom enjoy going online as an integral part of their daily lives," Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said in a news release.

U.S. Doc Assist LLC, AflacAssist LLC and 10 affiliated companies, as well as their principals, Lance Himes and Leary Darling, have agreed to permanently cease doing business in the state. They will also pay $400,000 to the state of Oregon, said Jeff Manning, DOJ spokesman.

"They have agreed to make full refunds," Manning said, adding the DOJ is hoping Ogier's story will help other victims come forward.

The companies sold a variety of work-from-home business opportunities. Dozens of customers signed up, lured by the promise of steady passive income for little, if any, hands-on work. The companies targeted the elderly, whose need for additional revenue and unfamiliarity with technology made them ideal targets, Manning said.

Ogier said she was told by the scammers that she would receive a portion of all charge-card sales run though machines she purchased. Spokespersons for the companies assured Ogier they would scout out business locations in which to place the machines, she said.

"Looking back it all seemed suspicious, of course," Ogier said. "But at the time it seemed reasonable. And I was feeling a lot of pressure to come up with extra income."

Ogier and other Oregon consumers paid $219 to $519 to have their own businesses set up in Arizona, Manning said. They were told their companies would advertise merchant processing services or credit card-swiping equipment, debt-reduction services, business loans and other merchant services.

But that was just the beginning. Other companies, also controlled by Himes and Darling, would then follow up, offering to put up a website and selling lists of potential customers, marketing campaigns, business plans and other assistance. Consumers generally paid between $2,000 and $50,000 for the additional services, Manning said.

Ogier was asked to contact her bank to see whether she could have her credit-card limit extended, she said. Fortunately, one of the scammers piped in during Ogier's telephone conversation with a Rogue Federal Credit Union employee, who immediately became suspicious on her behalf, Ogier said.

"The credit union (employee) was immediately alerted," she said. "They sent out a senior services representative. They were on my doorstep right away."

Ogier soon learned that the DOJ had a "whole file" on the scam that had ensnared her.

The DOJ in April issued notice that it intended to sue Himes and Darling and their companies for multiple alleged violations of Oregon's Unfair Trade Practices Act. The violations included: Knowingly allowing customers to enter into a transaction from which they would derive no benefit; knowingly taking advantage of a customer's confusion over the terms of the deal; and failing to deliver goods as promised, the DOJ news release said.

Himes and Darling opted to settle, agreeing to pay full refunds to all of their Oregon customers. To qualify, customers of U.S. Doc Assist and its affiliates must file a complaint with the Justice Department. They have until Oct. 23 — 180 days from the execution of the legal settlement — to file the complaints, Manning said.

Manning said it is unclear how much U.S. Doc Assist and its many affiliates extracted from Oregonians. U.S. Doc Assist alone signed up 112 customers in the state in just six months. The Department of Justice launched its investigation last August after three customers, including Ogier, filed complaints.

"It could have gotten worse," Ogier said. "Let's say I've learned some lessons to be a little more skeptical."

The DOJ is looking for more victims who are entitled to their share of the $400,000 recovered from the companies operated by Himes and Darling. They include Aflac Assist LLC, AflacAssist.com LLC, US Job Assist LLC, US Doc Assist LLC, First Business LLC, Divine Clientele LLC, Management AA LLC, Alac Assist LLC, Legal Doxs LLC, Assisting US Jobs LLC and AlacAssist.com LLC.

Three others who worked with Himes and Darling — Maria Sabastianna Hobbs, Vanessa Hobbs and William Stogner — also agreed to cease doing business in Oregon. Himes, Darling and their companies agreed to pay $1 million to the state as part of the settlement. The Department of Justice agreed to suspend $600,000 of that payment. If the companies fail to pay the balance of $400,000 within 90 days of the settlement or fail in any other way to comply with the settlement terms, the suspended $600,000 will be reinstituted, according to a DOJ news release.

None of the companies has any relationship to Aflac, the large insurance company, according to the DOJ news release.

Ogier has received full repayment of the money she put forth. But DOJ attorneys are still battling to get her $219 in interest accrued during the battle, she said.

"I fell for it," Ogier said. "And, of course, I am embarrassed. But if I helped to get them shut down in Oregon, that makes me feel better."

Those who have invested with U.S. Doc Assist or any of the other companies run by Himes and Darling and wish to file a complaint, are asked to call 1-877-877-9392 or go to www.oregonconsumer.gov.

Sanne Specht is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. She can be reached at 541-776-4497 or email sspecht@mailtribune.com.

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