Anatomy of A Scam Investigation, Chapter Three
[Wondering what's going on here? Check out the Chapter Index on this series.]
Welcome back. In Chapter One we introduced the fraudulent pseudo-invoice sent out by UST Development, Inc. of Ontario, California. In Chapter Two we talked about Google technique, building search and issue lists, and what the Better Business Bureau and the California Secretary of State told us about UST Development, Inc. and its principals and affiliates.
Enough preparation. Let's do some Googling. Please note: I'm only hitting the highlights. I'm deliberately excluding many boring and duplicative results. If you see something fun through Google that you think I missed (which is perfectly possible, I'm stupid and lazy) feel free to post it in the comments.
As I told you in Chapter One, my first very quick-and-dirty, no-preparation Google search turned up this Scam Informer post with comments. From that we learn a series of things:
The First Hit
1. Eleven consumers reported getting $175 "invoices" from UST Development, Inc. despite never having received services;
2. David Bell and Brandon [sic] Bell (it's actually Branden Bell, as it turns out) are affiliated with UST Development, Inc.;
3. Someone claiming to be a former employee asserts that David and Branden Bell hired him and promised him salary but never paid;
4. David and/or Branden Bell may or may or may not have declared bankruptcy (meaningful because it will lead us to check bankruptcy court records on PACER); and
5. The unnamed alleged employee describes a pattern of behavior typical of career con men:
I agreed that if UST, Brandon and David Bell would just pay me for the money I was out for all the court filings and service fees, I would go away. The amount was a scant $250. They both agreed and then the REAL fun began. First David Bell told me he would pay me and to just stop by his office later on that day…he wasn't there and the doors were locked. Two days later he finaly returned my calls and said he had to wait until the end of the month when all checks were writen and paid out. On the 3rd day of the next month I contacted David Bell to ask if my check was there. He told me it had showed up but the name on the check was wrong so he hads to send it back but a new check would be issued in the next day or so. Three days later David told me to stop by the office and my money would be waiting for me. I stoped at his office but the guy there said he knew nothing about a check, had never heard of me, and that it was between David Bell and myself. I immediataly called David and was told he forgot to leave the check but he was heading to the office and would call when he arrived so I could then stop by and pick up my money. He never called. Over the next two weeks I spoke with David Bell several times and each time he apologized for the way things were going and that he was going to be in his office later and would call me…he never called. So I started driving by his office periodically and one day found David there. I parked my car and went into the office where I found a smiling David Bell acting like I was an old friend, he shook my hand and asked me back to his office where he eagerly apologized once again, claimed he was going to make up for my troubles, and proceeded to write me a check in the amount of $300 ($250 for the agreed amount and an extra $50 for my troubles). This check was writen on a UST Development account at Chase Bank. After leaving Davids office I promptly went to the nearest Chase Bank branch and tried to cash the check. The teller said the check was no good. I then called David who informed me that the account was a "something something" ( I dont recall his exact words) accont and I needed to just deposit the check. I deposited the check into my WellsFargo account and "Presto." Three days later the check was returned by my bank unpaid. I called David Bell and he acted suprised and said he would give me cash and to just bring the check by for a trade. He said he would "be at the office later" and that he would "call me when he arrived." He never called. I called him a few more times and head the same line of B.S. so I quit calling.
Remember that these things are just claims by someone anonymous on the internet. But we're looking for corroboration — like the corroboration that my firm is not the only one to get the bogus "invoice." We're also going to be watching for other people telling stories of the sort of long-term lulling we'll-pay-today-I'll-be-there-in-an-hour behavior described here. [Hint: it's coming. Big time.] That sort of behavior is absolutely stereotypical of hardcore, sociopathic scammers I've encountered.
6. We also learned something interesting: Branden Bell may not exactly be a rocket scientist. In the comments of that post, a "BBell1024" shows up to say this:
Good afternoon all, I thought I would post that I have found this is to be a legitimate company with about 25 people working there. They have been in business developing properties as well as a certified low voltage installer( phone systems wiring etc) we took them up on their offer which does say on their invoice " preventative maintenance" and that "this is not for service rendored" We called them and asked for their services with re-wireing our complex and repairing 3 stations that needed programming. They were there the next day (last week) and the dept manager offered to credit our $175.00 already spent towards the 8 hours of work. Coincidentally prior to them stepping foot on our property, our voicemail acted up and they were able to fix that as well..It is a marketing tool but nothing more than a magazine subscription would be when they send out a invoice when you recieve your last issue. And as far as the contact I have been able to reach someone each time that I have tried. Good luck to all
Note that "BBell" can't even spell their bogus disclaimer correctly. Note also that someone using a different alias has posted almost the same thing in response to other complaints on the internet under the handle "blizzard." "Blizzard" was so eager he even posted his defensive rebuttal in connection with one of UST's addresses on YellowPages.com even though that location hadn't drawn a complaint yet. Now, is this necessarily Branden Bell? No. It could be a huge coincidence. Someone could be posing as Branden Bell to make them look guilty and stupid. (Of course, I note that someone with the handle bbell1024 has been researching the Bell family tree. Maybe I'll get a free membership at ancestry.com and chase that down later.) Or maybe — just maybe — Branden Bell is so unearthly-moronic that he used his own handle to post an astroturf comment in the same thread in which he was already called out by name. In which case, wow.
7. Another commenter gives us links to other internet complaint sites, and points out that UST Development, Inc. has had its contractor's license revoked for failure to pay a civil judgment. Query: without an active license, can UST Development, Inc even do what they are "soliciting" to do?
8. Another commenter posted allegations about a Bell family member. I'm leaving those aside while I search for corroboration.
So: onward with more Googling.
305 N Sacramento Avenue Ontario CA 91764 Ontario California 91764 United States of America
UST sent us an invoice which claimed that they were owed $175. Invoice states "This is not a statement for services rendered but for preventative maintenance".
We have never heard of this company. Total scam!
Pure scam. No such vendor in file. On invoice states"This is not a statement for services rendered but for preventative maintenance." As to what they are maintaining we'll never know as the phone number listed is only a recording. Website is bogus as well. Bottom line is it's a SCAM.
Mywot.com reports that www.ustdevelopment.com has a bad reputation as a result of sending out scam invoices.
Merchantcircle notes the scam.
Even reviews on Google Maps get in on the game. This is classic:
This company sent me a fake invoice for $175. When I called, they said that it was an optional service that I could start using with them, even though the invoice clearly says, "Telecom Maintenance/Service Call." When I called him on this, he backpedaled and claimed that the printer messed up and that he "was calling everybody to tell them about it." Avoid this SCAM!
And then there's the California Department of Labor, which keeps some orders online. Gee, look at this: a judgment against UST Development, Inc. for various Labor Code violations. Remember how I said we were looking for corroboration of employee complaints?
The nature of the violations of the Labor Code and the basis for the assessment are as follows:
Violation of Labor Code Sections 1771, 1774 for failure to pay prevailing wages to all workers employed on the project; CPRs falsely report wage
paid; all hours worked were not reported or paid; illegal deductions were taken from workers checks as if there were legitimate H& W, pension,
vacation funds and plans; worker Lazaro )Nas misclassfied for some hours when performing Operating Engineer work; some wages were paid on
a check all which payment was stopped; training fund contributions were not paid as required in violation of Section 1777.5; daily overtime
was worked but paid at straight time in the beginning of the project; but then overtime was not reported at all, nor was it paid, in violation
of Labor Code Section 1815,
Remember: having a financial collapse and not being able to pay bills — even salary — is not proof of fraud. But it can be combined with other evidence which, taken together, proves fraud.
This is getting dull. Let's move on.
I think we've got UST Development, Inc. pretty well figured out. But what else have David Bell and Branden Bell been up to? Scammers are prolific. It's rare to catch them in their first scam. What else can we find through Google?
You might remember from Chapters One and Two that the name "US Telecom" came up repeatedly, sometimes as "US Telecom, Inc." sometimes not. That's a very generic name; there are lots of legitimate businesses out there with very similar names. We'll have to pull the relevant ones out by searching for "US Telecom" in connection with other terms from our search list — like "David Bell."
That yields plenty. A number of online company profiles link "U.S. Telecom, Inc." to David Bell and Branden Bell. That profile also yields a new number — 626 256 8911. What do you think that number will turn up if I combine it with, say, "scam"? Hmmmmm.
It all started with a good credit card order, An employee named Gabriel Menchaca then asked for terms, we did a little checking and they seemed okay so we extended NET 30 terms, Then 3 PO's with 30 or so days dating back to Sept 2005 and a total of about $1600.00 in equipment.
Repeated calls to different people have led to more lies and stories. Contacted the President of the company David Bell. He has also made payment promises that never happen.
Stay away from these guys – they are all smoke and mirrors.
Let the seller be aware!
David Bell is the President
A 2008 update reports, very briefly, that the debts were paid. But bear in mind that fraudsters routinely reimburse the loudest complainers (after a long wait) if they want to keep their scam going. On the other hand, bear in mind again that this was merely an anonymous claim on the internet — its worth depends on how we can corroborate such behavior (for that, wait for the PACER analysis).
Now, US Telecom has all sorts of listings out there claiming that it is a corporation. But is it? If so, in what state? UST Development, Inc. and David Bell really mean to associate themselves with the corporation "US Telecom, Inc.", which one are they talking about?
In some places David Bell lists himself as the CEO of "US Telecommunication" and "Ust Dry Utilities," but in other places he's the CEO of "US Telecom, Inc." in Overland Park in Kansas. There seems to be no "U.S. Telecom" or "U.S. Telecommunication" or "US-Telecom" corporation in California. But there's a U.S. Telecom Long Distance, Inc., a Nevada corporation. Huh. There's a U.S. Telecom Long Distance, Inc. in Kansas, too, showing the same Nevada address. Also in Nevada, there's a U.S. Telecom, Inc. — and it shows four new names, all at an address in Overland Park, Kansas. Is it the same address that David Bell uses for his U.S. Telecom card? Why yes, it is. That address is also the Sprint headquarters. Maybe Sprint is picking up a few extra bucks by lending office space? Maybe it's an office park? Not sure yet. But, gee, it sure looks as if there may be some connection between David Bell and the U.S. Telecom, Inc. of Nevada. [Updated September 19, 2011: based on what I've found, I think the more likely scenarios are that (1) the Jigsaw profile connecting David Bell and UST Development to the Kansas address are some sort of error, or (2) they were fraudulently posted to make it appear that the participants in UST Development are connected with reputable companies.]
And it looks as if US Telecom of Nevada and U.S. Telecom Long Distance have a lot of fraud complaints against them for cramming unauthorized charges. This bears further investigation to determine if there is a connection between the UST Development, Inc. fraud and this fraud. [Edited on September 19, 2011: Not finding a clear connection so far, but still looking.]
Next up: oh boy, bankruptcy court records, what fun! Also, as promised, crime.
Remember: scammers are scum.
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