Three indicted in telemarketing scheme aimed at small businesses

Three Las Vegans have been indicted by a federal grand jury in what authorities say was a $5 million grant funding telemarketing scheme.

Nearly 400 people across the country were defrauded as they attempted to obtain private and government grants for small businesses, Nevada U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden said.

Gregory Villegas, 34, Christine M. Gagnon, 33, and Mickey Gines, 40, were charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud in connection with telemarketing and 31 counts of wire fraud.

They were arrested in Las Vegas Thursday morning and were to make initial appearances before a federal magistrate judge.

According to court records, Villegas owned several companies, including Executive Solutions and Business Funding Services Enterprises, that promoted their ability to obtain business grants. Gagnon and Gines were officers in some of the companies and listed as employees in other companies they controlled.

The three defendants are alleged to have carried out the telemarketing scheme between March 2008 and May 2012. They employed sales staff to place telemarketing calls and operate websites for the purpose of soliciting fees from small business owners who wished to obtain the grants.

High-pressure sales tactics and false statements were made to customers about their ability to deliver the grants, but the true intent of the defendants was to obtain as much money as possible from the customers and not provide the funding, according to prosecutors.

To avoid lawsuits and attention from law enforcement authorities, prosecutors alleged, the defendants operated their companies under multiple names and directed their staff to use different aliases when dealing with customers.

If convicted, the defendants each face as much as 30 years in prison on the conspiracy count, up to 10 consecutive years for telemarketing to people over the age of 55, and up to 30 years in prison on each wire fraud count. They also face as much as $250,000 in fines on each count.

The case was investigated by the U.S. Secret Service and FBI.