Monthly Archives: November 2011

Federal Sentencing Guidelines: a lure to organizational compliance

About 20 years ago, the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) enacted the Federal Sentencing Guidelines (FSGs) for organizations with the intent to govern the sentencing of companies convicted of federal crimes. The FSGs, which have been amended several times, hold that organizations can act only through agents and, under federal criminal law, generally are vicariously liable for offenses committed by their agents.

A proactive approach to prevent, detect and report illegal and unethical activities can substantially reduce fines and punishment, in some cases up to 95% according to a commentary by the USSC. The USSC specifies that the two factors that mitigate an organization’s ultimate punishment are “the existence of an effective compliance and ethics program, and self-reporting, cooperation, or acceptance of responsibility.” In contrast, the absence of solid compliance mechanisms can increase fines and punishment, as verdict determination is based on “the organization’s involvement in or tolerance of criminal activity, its prior history, violation of an order, and obstruction of justice.”

The compliance incentives provided by the FSGs and the proliferation of new regulations mandate a cultural imperative for ethical and law-abiding conduct by all companies, large and small. High-level attention, leadership and sufficient resources must be dedicated to meet the strict requirements of a compliance program defined by the USSC as “effective.” In its manual, the USSC emphasizes the necessity of strong due diligence to prevent and detect criminal conduct. Among its guidelines, a provision in Chapter 8 notes that:

“The organization shall use reasonable efforts not to include within the substantial authority personnel of the organization any individual whom the organization knew, or should have known through the exercise of due diligence, has engaged in illegal activities or other conduct inconsistent with an effective compliance and ethics program.”

Comprehensive background investigations, whether for employment purposes, evaluation of prospective clients, existing relationships and third-parties, or for other business transactions, are essential for compelling due diligence which actualizes a masterful compliance strategy. Although various committees and officials are calling for a complete review of the FSGs which the 2005 landmark case U.S. vs. Booker held as discretionary rather than mandatory, well-developed compliance programs are here to stay.

Scherzer International is on the forefront of the quick-changing regulations regime with a portfolio of background investigation products designed to facilitate purposeful risk management and compliance protocols. Visit us often at as we continuously analyze and test new elements and incorporate them into our products if they have proven value. And stay tuned for a Dodd-Frank regulations product which we will introduce within the next few months.

Epidemic of fake websites is real

Cyber crime experts report that fake websites are proliferating at the rate of 60,000+ per week or over 3,100,000 per year. And the fraudsters’ malicious exploitations are getting bold and more sophisticated, creating sites that are difficult to discern from those of legitimate businesses or organizations. From banks (which make up about 68% of fraudulent sites) to regulators and news reporting agencies, no entity is immune.

Recently, several local and national newspapers reported on a publicity campaign by a public relations company that purportedly set up a fake news site to promote one of its clients, a public entity, with positive articles and press releases “written in the image of real news” by “journalists” who allegedly do not exist. Although Web experts note that it is fairly common for celebrities and private-sector businesses to generate buzz or improve sales through news coverage, open government advocates called this stunt an egregious breach of trust and ethical standards.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) issued warnings a few months ago about scam artists exploiting well-known news organizations by setting up fake news sites to peddle their wares. The sites, which usually display logos of legitimate news organizations, promote everything from bogus weight loss products to work-at-home jobs, anti-aging products and debt reduction plans. The FTC cited several investigations that resulted in charges against the fraudsters, saying that many of the websites are owned by marketers and used to entice consumers to click on links to the sellers’ sites. In its case against acai berry supplement peddlers, the FTC disclosed that the sellers paid the marketers a commission based on the number of consumers they lured to their sites. There was no reporter, no studies, no dramatic weight loss, no satisfied consumers who left comments, and no affiliation with a reputable news source. As a rule, the FTC noted, legitimate news organizations do not endorse products.

The FTC itself, and other regulators have not escaped the fraudsters’ blitz. In April 2011, the FTC brought charges against an individual for multiple violations of the Federal Trade Commission Act for misrepresenting his affiliations with federal agencies, including the FTC, misrepresenting that the services advertised on his websites were government-approved, and making deceptive debt relief claims. The FTC alleged that the individual, a Texas-based “lead generator,” set up several websites through which he associated his business with a fictitious government agency – the “Department of Consumer Services Protection Commission” – that appeared to combine two real government entities, the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Among other charges, the FTC stated that to further these scams, the websites depicted the FTC’s official seal, copied language about the fictitious agency’s consumer protection mission from the FTC’s site, and claimed that the fake agency “monitors and researches” member companies that provide financial assistance to American consumers.

The scammers and their fake websites are also busy abroad. Earlier this month, international news sources reported that Russian fraudsters set up a counterfeit site of a popular five-star hotel, complete with the real hotel’s photographs, room descriptions and services. According to published reports, they also paid a fee to Google to ensure that their bogus site was listed before the hotel’s genuine site. The fraudulent website purportedly came to an abrupt end after, among other disparities, it was discovered that the room rates were advertised in dollars.

Another story about a flagrant website invasion came in October 2011 from Belgrade, where Serbian media reported that a mock-up of the official Nobel Prize website was set up purportedly by political activists to promote their causes and views.

Fraudulent websites appear daily and no industry or organization is beyond these fraudsters’ reach. Scherzer International, a provider of specialized background investigations for business transactions and employment decisions, includes comprehensive website reviews in its reports. We know how to spot scams, exaggerated claims and other red flags.

November 29th, 2011|Educational Series, Fraud|

Department of Justice drops controversial non-disclosure proposal

The DOJ, in a letter dated November 3, 2011, said that it is dropping its proposed regulation that would allow federal law enforcement agencies in certain cases to tell Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requesters that the government has no records on a subject, when it actually does. The DOJ indicated that it is now looking at other options to preserve the integrity of sensitive records but allow for public openness.

The letter noted that the DOJ has actually been issuing such denial responses for nearly 25 years, since Attorney General Edwin Meese issued the directive. The DOJ defended this approach and maintained that it did not constitute “lying” as some have suggested, and contended that its proposed regulation was an effort to systematize Meese’s order in federal regulations and to obtain public comments.

While expressly contemplated by statute and, according to the DOJ, necessary to protect vital law enforcement and national security interests, the practice went on for years with much less transparency. Under Meese’s guide, the government could tell FOIA requesters that it had no records if merely confirming their existence would be a tip-off that there was a criminal investigation. Denials of record existence also were permitted in situations legally referred to as “exclusions,” i.e., when federal law enforcement agencies needed to protect the identities of informants and when the FBI was asked for records about foreign intelligence, counterintelligence or international terrorism.

November 17th, 2011|Legislation|

Department of Justice filed a record number of criminal cases in 2011

Acting Assistant Attorney General Sharis A. Pozen in a November 17, 2011 published speech reported that in the fiscal year 2011, the DOJ filed 90 criminal cases — the highest number in the past 20 years. The DOJ agreed to more than $520 million in criminal fines, which is close to the amount in 2010 (which totaled 60 cases.) In this year’s 90 cases, 27 corporations in the real estate, optical disk drives, auto parts, air cargo, and financial services industries were charged along with 82 individuals.

Pozen also disclosed that the DOJ has been conducting an international cartel investigation into price fixing and bid rigging in the auto parts industry, which already resulted in the guilty pleas of one corporation and three individuals, $200 million in fines, and three jail terms for the executives involved in the conspiracy.

In the real estate industry, Pozen said that the DOJ continues its investigations into bid rigging conspiracies at public real estate foreclosure auctions and tax lien auctions. With the help of the FBI, the DOJ agents ferreted out the ways in which the participants coordinated their bids. To date, 32 defendants have pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges, according to Pozen.

The DOJ remains focused on criminal activity in the financial services sector. Pozen noted that together with several federal and state agencies, the DOJ has been investigating a criminal conspiracy involving bid rigging in the municipal bond investments market, resulting in nine pleas of individuals this year. These investigations, which are ongoing, impelled JPMorgan Chase to enter into an agreement to resolve its role in the conspiracy, and agree to pay $228 million in restitution, penalties, and disgorgement to federal and state agencies. Earlier in the year, UBS AG also agreed to pay a total of $160 million and Bank of America previously consented to $137.3 million.

Bribing for business: Russia and China score lowest in fighting corruption

According to a survey released on November 3, 2011, by Transparency International, a non-profit, corruption watchdog, Russia and China got the lowest scores in its 2011 Bribe Payers Index, which ranked the top 28 largest economies according to the probability of companies headquartered in these countries practicing bribery. The scores were calculated from responses of 3,016 executives in 30 countries who had business dealings in those economies.

Companies based in China and Russia scored below 7 on a scale of 10, at 6.5 and 6.1, respectively. Mexico, with a 7.0 score, was third from the bottom. Companies in the Netherlands and Switzerland tied for first place with scores of 8.8, with Belgium, Germany, and Japan rounding out the top five.
The survey also ranked the business sectors in which bribery was perceived to be prevalent. Public works and construction were reported as the most pullulated along with oil and gas. Agriculture and light manufacturing were ranked as the cleanest.

The report noted that “there is no country among the 28 major economics whose companies are perceived to be wholly clean and do not engage in bribery.” And the scores, on average, have not improved significantly from the 2008 Bribe Payers Index. The average score of 22 countries increased only 0.1 points to 7.9 in the latest edition.

The survey also found that “international business leaders reported the widespread practice of companies paying bribes to public officials in order to, for example, win public tenders, avoid regulation, speed up government processes or influence policy.” However, companies are almost as likely to pay bribes to other businesses, according to the survey, which looked at business-to-business bribery for the first time. This suggests that corruption is not only a concern for the public sector, but for many businesses, and carries major reputational and financial risks.

November 3rd, 2011|Criminal Activity|
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