Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Utah resident indicted for fraud in fake charity scheme for veterans

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Travis Peterson has been indicted by a federal grand jury on mail and wire fraud charges for operating a fraudulent charity scheme. For years he allegedly used millions of robocalls to urge people to donate vehicles and other valuable items by falsely claiming their donations would go to veterans’ charities and were tax-deductible.

“Thousands were allegedly defrauded by Peterson’s false claims that he wanted to help veterans,” said U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak. “Many veterans face significant financial challenges, and Peterson allegedly exploited the generosity and good intentions of those who donated to support those who served our nation.”

“While fraud is always wrong, Peterson’s exploitation of the public’s trust and charitable giving, providing false assurances that the donations were going to help veterans’ charities, is especially egregious,” said Tommy D. Coke, Inspector in Charge of the Atlanta Division.  “The US Postal Inspection Service remains vigilant in keeping fraudsters from using the U.S. Mail to commit their offenses.”

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“Peterson used millions of illegal robocalls to convince people to donate to his fake veterans’ charities and, in turn, hurt legitimate charities that do great work on behalf of our service-members,” said Anna Burns, Director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Southeast Region. “This announcement shows that putting a stop to illegal robocalls and protecting well-meaning Americans from fraudulent charities remains a top priority for cooperation between law enforcement agencies around the nation.”

According to U.S. Attorney Pak, the indictment, and other information presented in court:  Between approximately April 2012 and July 2018, Peterson established and registered multiple corporate entities, including Vehicles for Veterans LLC, Medal of Honor, Act of Valor, Donate Real Estate LLC, Donate That Car LLC MI, Donate That Car LLC NV, Telefunding LLC, Tiny Towns R.E. LLC, Victims Relief LLC, Veterans of America, and Saving Our Soldiers in Nevada, Michigan and Utah. Each of these companies was purportedly a tax-exempt charitable organization that Peterson established to help veterans and their families. None of these companies, however, was an actual charity with tax exempt status. Peterson in fact never owned or operated a single charity that benefitted veterans.

Using millions of robocalls, as well as multiple websites and newspaper advertisements, Peterson allegedly defrauded thousands of people around the country into believing they were donating vehicles and other property to benefit veterans. Peterson and those working at his direction falsely informed would-be donors that their donations would be used to benefit veterans and were tax deductible. Peterson himself did not pick up and sell the donated vehicles. Rather, he contracted with third-party auto auction companies to handle the logistics of acquiring and selling the donated vehicles. After the vehicles were sold, the auction companies would remit any proceeds to bank accounts controlled by Peterson. None of these funds went to the benefit of veterans. Peterson instead allegedly used them for own personal expenses, including to pay for online dating services and to purchase an all-terrain vehicle. As a result, Peterson defrauded donors of more than $500,000.

The FTC had previously filed a complaint against Peterson in the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah arising from this same fraudulent scheme. On April 1, 2019, the court entered a stipulated order and judgment which permanently banned Peterson from soliciting charitable contributions and from using robocalls, as well as prohibiting him from making misrepresentations that a charitable contribution is tax-deductible. The order also imposed a $541,032.10 monetary judgment against Peterson and required that he forfeit 88 vehicles.  The FTC’s investigation of Peterson is part of a broader initiative by the agency to combat illegal robocalls. More information about several of the FTC’s recent enforcement actions, including Peterson’s, is available online: https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2019/03/ftc-crackdown-stops-operations-responsible-billions-illegal.

Travis Peterson, 53, of St. George, Utah, was indicted on December 9, 2020. Members of the public are reminded that the indictment only contains charges.  The defendant is presumed innocent of the charges and it will be the government’s burden to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at trial.

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This case is being investigated by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.  The Cleveland and Atlanta Regional Offices of the Federal Trade Commission provided invaluable contributions in this case.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Alex R. Sistla is prosecuting the case, which was begun by former Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Valerie Verduce.

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