In a landmark trial in Minneapolis, federal prosecutors are closing in on the culmination of a lengthy legal battle against three individuals accused of orchestrating a sprawling telemarketing scam that cost 150,000 victims an estimated $300 million over several decades. Amondo Antoine Miller, Tashena Lavera Crump, and Ballam Hazeakiah Dudley are among dozens of defendants implicated in this extensive operation, with the majority having already pleaded guilty and cooperated with the authorities.
The scam, which ensnared people from all corners of the United States, revolved around fraudulent magazine subscriptions that left countless victims financially devastated. This narrative examines the devastating impact on one victim, Penny Mashburn, and the intricate web of deception spun by the scammers, illustrating the pernicious nature of such scams.
Start Of Scam
Approximately a decade ago, in Franklinville, North Carolina, Penny Mashburn was approached by children raising money for what appeared to be a legitimate fundraiser. They sold her two magazine subscriptions: one for a cat publication and another for a sudoku puzzle magazine. Mashburn, a 72-year-old retiree, received her periodicals as expected initially. However, it wasn’t long before her peaceful subscription took a disquieting turn.
Mashburn’s ordeal began when she started receiving calls inquiring about her satisfaction with the subscriptions and whether she wished to subscribe to more magazines. Despite her disinterest, the calls persisted, and soon, unrequested magazines like Better Homes & Gardens, People, Horse & Rider, and Reader’s Digest inundated her mailbox. This was not only an unwanted nuisance but also an unbearable burden given her hectic life.
Demands and Financial Struggles
At the time, Mashburn was juggling a demanding job in logistics at a gas pump manufacturing company, requiring her to work 50 to 60 hours weekly. Her responsibilities extended beyond her career; she was the primary caregiver for her husband, Ronny, who was battling Parkinson’s disease. As his condition deteriorated, he eventually required admission to a nursing home in 2019.
Nancy Stowe, Penny Mashburn’s sister, entered the picture when they embarked on the challenging journey of applying for Medicaid for Ronny. This necessitated a thorough examination of their bank statements, revealing the staggering extent of their financial losses. A comprehensive audit revealed that numerous companies with names like Central Subscription Services and Readers Club Home Office had been surreptitiously withdrawing funds from Mashburn’s bank account multiple times each month for years, amounting to a harrowing loss exceeding $68,000.
Journey Of Justice
Determined to seek justice and hold those responsible accountable, Mashburn and Stowe, now residents of Georgia, journeyed to Minneapolis in mid-October to testify in the federal trial of the three individuals who allegedly owned and managed some of these fraudulent companies. This brave move was part of a broader legal effort to dismantle the telemarketing scam that had afflicted so many unsuspecting victims.
The prosecution’s case centers on the elaborate deception that unfolded over the course of several decades, with scammers operating from rudimentary “boiler room” offices in various locations, including the Twin Cities suburbs, Littleton, Colorado, and Oxford, Mississippi. Their modus operandi involved the acquisition and exchange of sales lead lists that contained names, addresses, and, alarmingly, credit and debit card numbers of subscribers to various magazines.
Under the guise of representing legitimate periodical publishers, the scammers adhered to meticulously crafted scripts, falsely asserting pre-existing business relationships with their victims. To seal the deal, they offered discounts and incentives, all while surreptitiously recording the final moments of the call, often on analog cassette tapes. This recorded content could then be manipulated and presented out of context, making it appear as though the victims had willingly agreed to new subscriptions.
One notable instance involved Corlos Kentrell Smith of Midwest Publishers Home Office, who called Rose Cubur of Stafford, Virginia, offering her a $5 discount on her subscriptions, which she accepted. Unbeknownst to Smith, Cubur was, in fact, an undercover postal inspector from the same town. Smith eventually pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud in 2021.
The web of deception was intricate, with one fraudulent company acquiring false identities from another. Wayne Robert Dahl Jr., who operated yet another deceptive company, Your Magazine Service, Inc., supplied Midwest Publishers with Cubur’s fictitious identity. Dahl’s own legal troubles began when former Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson sued him and his fraudulent company in 2016, setting off a chain of events leading to a federal investigation. Dahl, aged 55, later pleaded guilty to mail fraud and collaborated with investigators to provide fake lead lists to others who were still conducting fraudulent activities.
Dahl’s testimony in court shed light on the dark underbelly of the telemarketing scam. He admitted to initiating the company in 2007, after serving time in federal prison for drug-related offenses, including methamphetamine distribution. Dahl started his operations in the laundry room of his mobile home in Chaska, Minnesota, using a customer database he had stolen from Brian James Williams, another defendant who had pleaded guilty in the case. In a remorseful tone, Dahl described himself as “morally bankrupt” and the enormity of the deceit he was involved in.
Throughout this complex legal saga, Dahl, who is still awaiting sentencing, declined interview requests through his lawyer. Defense attorneys representing the accused exploited the cooperating witnesses’ limited knowledge of the overarching scheme and highlighted their criminal records during cross-examination. As the trial progresses, jurors are expected to hear from approximately a dozen defense witnesses before both sides present their closing arguments.
The ongoing federal trial in Minneapolis offers a glimpse into the vast scope and pernicious nature of telemarketing scams that prey on unsuspecting victims. Penny Mashburn’s harrowing experience and the deceptive tactics employed by the scammers highlight the devastating consequences of their actions. The legal proceedings serve as a vital effort to bring those responsible for this extensive scam to justice, offering hope to the countless victims who suffered financial losses and emotional distress. As the trial nears its conclusion, the pursuit of justice continues, shedding light on the critical importance of addressing and preventing telemarketing fraud in all its forms.