Federal authorities in Minnesota charged a third man with helping run a multimillion-dollar nationwide magazine sales scam, arresting him as he tried to leave the country over the weekend.
According to charges unsealed on Monday, Brian James Williams, 51, of Orono, allegedly used companies in South St. Paul and San Diego to bilk thousands of "elderly or otherwise vulnerable" consumers out of $2.4 million over five years.
Williams was arrested Saturday before he could board a Los Angeles flight to Canada, making him the third defendant in an ongoing federal fraud probe that has so far publicly outlined more than $100 million in losses to victims around the country.
According to a sworn statement by U.S. Postal Service Inspector John Western, Williams owned Readers Club Home Office in South St. Paul and Pacific Beach Readers Club in San Diego, later telling investigators that he had been in the magazine sales industry for more than 30 years.
Federal authorities executed search warrants at Williams' businesses in February, around the same time that agents raided multiple magazine sales businesses in southern Missouri and Florida, seizing documents and computers associated with the companies' call centers. In a subsequent interview with law enforcement in April, Williams allegedly admitted to committing fraud.
"Williams admitted that his company lied to consumers to take their money and that doing so was fraud," Western said.
Williams is accused of directing employees at his telemarketing call centers to read from sales scripts in which they falsely claimed to be calling about existing magazine subscriptions. Instead, consumers were signed up for additional and expensive services.
A 70-year-old retiree from New Jersey shared copies of his credit card statements with the FBI, detailing multiple magazine billings — including three by Williams' business in one month. A 65-year-old Maryland woman told investigators that she got about 20 magazines a month at a cost of $400 to $1,000 each month. She was charged $1,500 by 17 different companies across eight states in a four-week period from December 2017 to January 2018.
Agents stopped Williams from leaving the country after getting a tip that he booked an airline ticket to Canada days earlier. He is expected to be extradited to Minnesota to face charges in the case in the district's federal court. Williams is unemployed, a U.S. citizen, and his ex-wife and son both live in Minnesota.
In July, Williams also booked an airline ticket from Los Angeles to Costa Rica, where he owns property, but he did not board the flight, Western said.
A co-defendant in the case, who previously pleaded guilty to wire fraud, told prosecutors that Williams' company and others bought and sold "lead lists" of potential customers to call. The most valuable lists were those that provided contact and credit card information for consumers who were actively being billed for subscriptions, the cooperator said. The co-defendant previously worked with Williams before starting another company. Investigators have since discovered that the two had 3,136 customers signed up for subscription packages with both of their companies.
A second cooperator, a former telemarketer for Williams' company, told investigators that she used scripts to convince consumers that she was calling from their existing magazine service. It was not uncommon to call the same person multiple times, she said, and use the same script each time.
Neither of the cooperators were named in the criminal complaint against Williams. However, two people have so far pleaded guilty during the investigation. Last month, Wayne R. Dahl Jr., 51, of Fridley, pleaded guilty to running a decadelong scam that defrauded at least 13,000 people out of $11 million. Michael Oelrich, a Florida man accused of running several magazine-scam companies, also pleaded guilty last month for his role in a scheme that bilked thousands more out of at least $100 million. Oelrich admitted to working for a Kansas City businessman identified only as "Individual R" in court documents.