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Witnesses say telemarketer’s harassment cost them

Several consumers contacted by Las Vegas-based Unified Services testified in federal court Thursday, claiming the telemarketing company withdrew money from their bank accounts before delivering services or after ignoring cancellation requests.

The Federal Trade Commission filed a complaint against the telemarketing company in May, claiming it violated federal commerce laws by harassing consumers until they agreed to listen to sales pitch and accept the gifts offered.

"Defendants … have engaged in a nationwide scheme to take money from bank accounts of consumers across the United States through deception or without consent," the complaint states.

U.S. District Judge Brian Sandoval held a hearing Thursday after the government sought to freeze the company’s assets.

According to recorded calls played in court Thursday, a telemarketer calls consumers and offers them a $1,000 certificate for an Internet "shopping spree," or a three-day vacation if they accepted its Internet and long-distance calling services along with a dietary pill for a 10-day trial period.

When a recorded voice asked the consumers whether they wanted the service and the consumer declined, a live telemarketer returned to the line and told them they should say "yes," explaining that an affirmative answer either expedited the process or was necessary to receive the gifts.

Consumers were told that if they canceled the service within a 10-day trial period, they would not be charged. But the alleged victims, each of whom provided their bank account information to allow the company to withdraw $1.95 in shipping costs, found it impossible to cancel the services.

Sheri Oanes, of St. Charles, Ill., said she tried to cancel the services the day after she received the call. She was told her name was not in the company’s system.

"I felt uncomfortable about the whole situation," said the mother of seven. "I was frustrated with the whole ordeal."

She sent three faxes, a certified letter and made three additional calls to the company. By the time a representative acknowledged she was a consumer, her trial period had expired. The company withdrew $160 from her bank account.

Logan Arambel, of Holly, Colo., said the Unified Services telemarketer called him at least once a day for two weeks after he initially declined to listen to the sales pitch. He was told to accept the services offered by the computer and the telemarketer would mark "no" to the services he did not want.

Arambel received the diet pill and the unwanted Internet and long-distance service. About $97 was withdrawn from his account because he did not cancel the services.

He said the company refused to refund him the money because it had taped proof that he agreed to accept the services.

Arambel said the $1,000 shopping certificate was worthless, because the items offered were overpriced and shipping costs exceeded the price of the merchandise.

FTC attorneys claim at least 200 consumers were victimized by the company.

Those consumers complained that their request for cancellations were ignored or that they were not informed the 10-day trial period began when they accepted the offer over the phone, not when they received the services.

Johnnie Haynes, of El Paso, Texas, testified that $148 was withdrawn from his account before he received any documentation or services from Unified Services.

Richard Schonfeld, attorney for Unified Services, said the company did not deceive any consumers. The recordings show that the consumers were aware that if they did not cancel the product within the trial period, they would be charged for the services. Each agreed to direct billing, he said.

Contact reporter Adrienne Packer at apacker@reviewjournal.com or 702-384-8710.

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