U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte,Jr.
The U.S. attorney and the County Department of Consumer Affairs held a consumer protection summit on educating the consumer about fraud.
Emphasizing the importance of having a community that is informed against the onslaught of financial predators, U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte, Jr. and the Los Angeles County Department Consumer Affairs (DCA) held a consumer summit that was attended by representatives from local, state and federal agencies, designed to begin informing and alerting the community about massive “white collar” crimes that overwhelmingly target the elderly and low income residents in the South Los Angeles and surrounding areas.
The summit grew out of the Consumer Protection Working Group (CPWG) that was launched last March in Washington, D.C. by the U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder under President Obama’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force (FFETF) to bring together federal, state and local agencies. He appointed Birotte one of the co-chairs of the CPWG.
At the CPWG’s first meeting, A/G Holder said, “For me, and for today’s Department of Justice, protecting American consumers is a top priority. We cannot simply prosecute our way out of this problem … we need your talents, we need your determination. And that’s precisely what this day is all about.” He also let the participants know that under the President’s FFETF, the CPWG is dedicated to ferreting out consumer fraud, which can financially cripple households and can cause extensive losses to the nation’s economy.
According to the participants of the L.A. summit, these crimes include but are not limited to identity theft, mortgage and modification scams, mail fraud, credit card fraud, and the list goes on and on. And because many of these crimes are perpetrated over the internet, information and knowledge are the most potent weapons against these fraudsters. Birotte referred to these scam artists as “scum” artists.
The summit was hosted by L.A. Urban League’s Blair Taylor who welcomed the participants and even shared an experience that he had with an unscrupulous car repair shop. “It took me about 45 days to resolve the problem,” he said and he considered himself an informed consumer.
Some of the agencies in attendance included the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD), the LAPD, the FBI, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the State Bar of California, the State Attorney General, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, L.A. District Attorney, L.A. City Attorney, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Bet Tzedek Legal Services and L.A. Urban League.
The tone of the summit focused on how the different agencies (law enforcement, civil, criminal, business, investigative and others) in L.A. and the surrounding areas could coordinate and combine their efforts to reach a community that is sometimes apprehensive about working with governmental agencies.
“The meeting in Washington D.C. was the impetus to take this (meeting) on the road, because at the Department of Justice, consumer protection is a top priority,” he explained echoing the words of A/G Holder. “Consumers are bombarded by fraud and we have to work together at every level of government – state, local and federal.” Since the focus was to find the best way to ultimately reach the consumer, “we can use this (summit) as a launching pad to bring the community together,” he concluded.
Along with Birotte, other members of the opening panel included:
Edith Ramirez, Commissioner, Federal Trade Commission (FTC): a graduate from Harvard who told the group that since the economic downturn, fraud has run amok and that in the last two years, the FTC has received the most complaints from California.
Steven Ramirez, assistant director-in-charge, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI): a 25-year veteran of the FBI who gave an example of his first fraud case in El Paso, Texas, and how he learned a lot from that experience and its impact.
John Pitts, intergovernmental advisor, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB): a relatively new agency where Pitts manages the partnership with state agencies fighting and protecting the consumer.
Joe Dunn, CEO, State Bar of California: a public regulatory body, that regulates the attorneys who practice in the state, and as such, part of its responsibility is to shed the bunker mentality that seems to go with it.
Brian Nelson, special assistant to California’s Attorney General: he assists the state’s A/G in its robust consumer fraud department, working mostly on mortgage fraud along with the department’s 1100 attorneys.
Brian Stiger, director, L.A County DCA: brings government agencies together and reaches out to law enforcement, when needed, also advocates for consumers and investigates their complaints.
Bruce Riordan, of the U.S. Attorney’s office and Rigo Reyes, of the DCA moderated and skillfully coordinate the other panels into two sessions.
The two panel-sessions convened and each panel member went into further details of the work that each department does, how that work will contribute to, and enhance the work of the Consumer Protection Summit. Then there were questions from the audience, suggestions, and an overview of what was accomplished.
“What’s next is to have a room full of thousands of people,” Birotte envisioned, “the people on the streets. What we are doing here is for them.” Then he thanked everyone especially the FTC and DCA.
The overall recommendations leaned towards community, legislative and educational advocacy and possible remedies
– that the next meeting should consist of all the organizations in the community;
– that the information generated should be made a part of the school curriculum;
– that there should be an effort to make sure that laws catch up with these consumer issues;
– that accommodations should be made for other languages;
– that law schools should also be involved.