FBI investigating Durham firms for phone cramming

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The FBI is asking land-line phone customers across the country to check their bills for phantom charges from more than 20 companies with links to embattled financier Tim Durham.

The request follows a Tuesday FBI raid on Minnesota-based Alternate Billing Corp., which adds charges to customer phone bills on behalf of the companies, purportedly with permission from consumers.

The companies are suspected of cramming, which happens when firms add extra charges to a person's phone bill without authorization. The charges are generally small and easy to overlook since they appear to be one of several fees actually related to the phone service.

Durham has direct ties to several of the companies the FBI names, records show. Among them: eProtectID, Streaming Flix, Durham Technology, MyIProducts, and NeedTheInfo. Most list their home base as the former Chase Tower headquarters of Obsidian Enterprises, a Durham-led buyout firm.

Other companies the FBI names have indirect ties to Durham, as does Alternate Billing, whose president, Cynthia Landeen, received a $284,000 loan from Akron, Ohio-based Fair Finance Co., a Durham-owned firm that collapsed last year.

Records show Fair Finance also made a loan of $365,000 to ABC Corp., a name Alternate Billing has used to describe itself.

Another company involved in the billing is VolCoff LLC, which has ties to Neil Lucas, an Indianapolis attorney who has represented Durham on numerous matters and received at least $145,000 in loans from Fair Finance.

The Durham-led National Lampoon Inc. also is listed as a client of Alternate Billing on the company's website.

Another firm named by the FBI—MyIProducts—listed Durham as its registered agent with the Indiana Secretary of State until June, when it switched the listing to Indianapolis attorney Thomas Collignon.

About 100 people filed complaints about MyIProducts on the consumer advocate site RipoffReport.com from late 2006 through early 2010. The complaints say the company added a $14.95 monthly charge on their AT&T bill for access to a personal 800-number and website to check voice messages, all without asking their permission.

A customer in Alabama said MyIProducts signed up a family member under the name of a long-deceased relative. Another in Texas said her business was signed up with an address that hadn’t been used since 1992.

“They are thieves,” wrote a poster in Los Angeles. “Moral of the story: Check your phone bills.”

An attorney for Durham was not immediately available for comment.

For more than a year, the FBI has been investigating Durham's dealings with Fair Finance, which Durham and a partner acquired in 2002. Records show Durham and business associates drained tens of millions of dollars from the company in the form of loans that have not been repaid. The borrowing left the firm unable to repay more than 5,000 Ohio residents who had purchased more than $200 million in unsecured investment certificates.

Here are the company names the FBI says to look for on your phone bill: 800VMailbox, BusinessSEOPro, Digital VMail, Durham Technology, eProtectID, eSafeId, Identity Holdings, InfoCall, Instant 411, InstantSEOPro, Matchgamepro, Mobile 411 Plus, My411Connect, MyIDSafe, MyIProducts, NeedTheInfo, ProIdentityProtect, Safeguard My Credit, Streaming Flix, Studio 127, Uvolve and VolCoff.

The government has set up an online form to report unauthorized charges here. Victims can also e-mail contact information, documentation and an estimate of loss to telephone.victim@ic.fbi.gov.

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