WASHINGTON – In response to Russia’s continued efforts to destabilize eastern Ukraine, the U.S. Department of the Treasury today imposed prohibitions on additional entities operating within the financial services sector of the Russian economy pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13662.Specifically, Treasury imposed sanctions that prohibit U.S. persons from providing new financing to three major Russian financial institutions, limiting their access to U.S. capital markets.Treasury today has also designated one Russian state-owned defense technology firm pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13661.  These measures coincide with actions taken to suspend U.S. export credit and development finance to Russia.

“In light of Russia’s continuing support for separatists in Ukraine, we took additional steps today to further increase financial pressure on the Russian government,” said Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen.

“These actions, along with actions announced today by the European Union, significantly increase the costs to Russia for its efforts to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty.  We are prepared to continue to expand these sanctions if Russia refuses to change course.”

 Prohibition of Certain Types of Activities with Three Russian State-Owned Financial Institutions Pursuant to E.O. 13662 Treasury today imposed measures prohibiting U.S. persons and persons within the United States from transacting in, providing financing for, or otherwise dealing in new debt of longer than 90 days maturity or new equity for Bank of Moscow, Russian Agricultural Bank, and VTB Bank OAO, their property, or their interests in property.

As a practical matter, this step will severely limit these banks’ access to medium- and long-term U.S. dollar financing, and will impose additional significant costs on the Russian Government for its continued activities in Ukraine.

We have not blocked the property or interests in property of these banks, nor prohibited transactions with them beyond these specific restrictions.  However, the scope of prohibited activities and the number of sanctioned financial institutions may be expanded under the authority of E.O. 13662 if we decide to do so.

 

 

 

 

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At the request of the Federal Trade Commission, a federal court has temporarily halted a mobile phone cramming scheme that deceptively piled more than $100 million in charges on consumers’ mobile phone bills without their permission. In its complaint, the FTC seeks permanently to shut down the operation and recover money lost by consumers.

The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California issued a temporary restraining order against six companies and six individual defendants behind the scheme, halting the operations and freezing their assets pending litigation.

“This scheme demonstrates the kind of widespread harm that mobile phone cramming can inflict on American consumers,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “It also shows why we’ve made it a priority to crack down on this problem.”

In its complaint, the FTC charged that the defendants used deceptive practices, including fake websites with bogus offers of “freebies” or gift cards, to trick consumers into providing their mobile phone numbers. The defendants then placed monthly subscription fees for a variety of “services” on consumers’ mobile phone bills without their authorization.

The practice, known as mobile cramming, relies on the fact that many consumers often don’t closely examine their monthly statements, or assume that charges are legitimate.

The “services” described in the complaint consisted of subscriptions for text messages sent to consumers’ mobile phones that contained short celebrity gossip alerts, “fun facts,” horoscopes, and other items. The subscriptions typically cost consumers $9.99 or $14.99 per month and were set to renew automatically each month.

According to the FTC’s complaint, the process of disputing the charges was frustrating and time-consuming for consumers. Some consumers were crammed for multiple months before noticing the charges and, even after significant effort, were unable to obtain a full refund.

According to documents filed in court by the FTC, the defendants continued cramming charges on to consumers’ mobile phone bills even after wireless carriers terminated their billing privileges. For example, two mobile carriers terminated MDK’s billing privileges because of its high refund rates and its association with deceptive websites. In spite of that, MDK continued cramming through use of a fictitious business name.

The defendants in the case are MDK Media Inc.; Tendenci Media LLC; Mindkontrol Industries LLC; Anacapa Media LLC; Bear Communications LLC; Network One Commerce Inc.; Makonnen Demessow Kebede; Sarah Ann Brekke; Christopher Thomas DeNovellis; Wayne Calvin Byrd II; James Matthew Dawson; and Casey Lee Adkisson.

The FTC’s complaint alleges that the defendants violated the FTC Act, through their deceptive tactics and by unfairly billing consumers for unauthorized services.

In recent months, the FTC has brought a number of law enforcement actions in addition to policy and education activities designed to combat mobile cramming that are part of the Commission’s overall work to protect consumers in the mobile environment. Earlier this week, the Commission released a staff report with best practices for companies in the carrier billing industry to help prevent mobile cramming. The Commission voted 5-0 to authorize the staff to file the complaint.

 

The rental vacancy rate in the second quarter 2014 was 7.5 percent, down 0.7 percentage points from the second quarter 2013 rate of 8.2 percent, the U.S. Census Bureau reported today.

The rental vacancy rates in the Northeast and Midwest were lower than the corresponding second quarter 2013 rates, while the rates in the South and West were not statistically different from the rates a year ago.

2nd Qtr 2014: +7.5 percent
2nd Qtr 2013: +8.2 percent

Also, the Census Bureau reported the homeownership rate in the second quarter 2014 was 64.7 percent, down 0.3 percentage points from the second quarter 2013 rate of 65.0 percent.

The homeownership rates in the Northeast and South were lower than the rates in the second quarter 2013, while the rates in the Midwest and West were not statistically different from the rates a year ago.

2nd Qtr 2014: +64.7 percent
2nd Qtr 2013: +65.0 percent

Western Governors strongly support the Advancing Conservation Education Act of 2014 (H.R. 4901) to expedite federal-state land exchanges that benefit both parties.

That was the message delivered by Western Governors’ Association Executive Director Jim Ogsbury during testimony on Capitol Hill Tuesday (July 29) before the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation.

Ogsbury’s testimony noted that “State land managers have a fiduciary duty to manage state trust lands to maximize their revenues for specified constitutional purposes, such as public education. Federal lands are managed for entirely different purposes.”

Ogsbury continued: “Where state lands are effectively trapped inside federal conservation areas, it only makes sense to effect exchanges so that the federal government can acquire and manage that land consistent with its purposes and the state can acquire land from which economic value can be realized.

“The problem is that the … time-swallowing bureaucratic requirements associated with appraisals, analyses and environmental reviews (and their staggering costs) operate to defeat otherwise sensible trades. It is critical that Congress enact legislation to expedite the process for sensible government-to-government exchanges.” (Read the complete testimony)

BishopPublic Lands and Environmental Regulation Subcommittee Chairman Rob BishopThe testimony reiterated Western Governors’ previously announced support for the Advancing Conservation Education Act of 2014 (H.R. 4901), introduced in the House on June 19 by Public Lands and Environmental Regulation Subcommittee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and House Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.). Read the letter.

Previous outreach by WGA in support of land exchange reform offered detailed proposals (Read our letter) and referenced Western Governors’Policy Resolution 13-01: Federal-State Land Exchanges and Purchases.

Get the latest news of the West and the Western Governors’ Association by following the WGA on Twitter and Facebook.

In a report issued today, the Federal Trade Commission staff recommends steps that mobile carriers and other companies should take to prevent consumers from being stuck with unauthorized charges on their mobile phone bills, an unlawful practice known as mobile cramming.

The report focuses on the multi-billion dollar business known as carrier billing, which refers to the placement of charges for goods and services of third-party merchants on a mobile phone bill. “Mobile Cramming: An FTC Staff Report” includes five recommendations aimed at mobile carriers, merchants who offer goods and services charged directly to mobile phone bills, and billing intermediaries known as aggregators who facilitate the placement of such charges on mobile phone bills.

“Mobile cramming is an issue that has affected millions of consumers, sticking them with charges they did not authorize, and the FTC has worked hard to combat it,” said Jessica Rich, the Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The best practices recommended in our report build on the FTC’s active enforcement in this area and would give consumers needed protections to rein in the problems we have seen.”

While the report notes that mobile bills can include legitimate add-on third-party charges such as charitable contributions, others may be crammed onto consumers’ bills by scammers. The report notes that while the full scope of mobile cramming is not known, just three cases brought last year by the Commission against mobile crammers led to more than $160 million in judgments. One participant in the FTC’s roundtable on mobile cramming participant called it “almost the perfect scam.”

Based on findings from the Commission’s 2013 mobile cramming roundtable and other public evidence, the report follows a number of enforcement actions brought by the Commission in in the last year against mobile cramming. Specifically, the report calls for:

Giving consumers the right to block third-party charges. FTC staff calls on mobile phone carriers to give consumers the right to block third-party charges on their mobile bills altogether, and to inform consumers clearly and prominently of that right. Carriers should inform consumers of this right not only when consumers create their account, but also on an ongoing basis.

Ensuring that advertising, marketing, and opt-in processes for charges are not deceptive. Advertising, marketing, and opt-in processes for third-party mobile account charges should be clear about how much and how often a consumer will be charged. Mobile carriers should closely monitor the merchants placing charges through their bills to scrutinize whether they are risky or suspicious, and if so, take steps to prevent them from placing charges.

Getting express, informed consent before charging consumers. Consumers’ express, informed consent must be obtained before placing charges on their mobile phone bill, and reliable records of that consent should be kept. Carriers should closely monitor refund rates, consumer complaints and other signs of possible cramming and take action where necessary.

Clearly displaying third-party charges on bills. Mobile bills should clearly and conspicuously show third-party charges. Carriers should consider steps to make third-party charges more prominent, such as separate billing lines for third-party charges that make it clear to consumers which charges are directly from a carrier and which are from a third party. In addition, mobile carriers should give consumers using pre-paid calling plans who do not otherwise receive bills from their mobile carrier to receive specific notification that a third-party charge is being deducted from their account.

Creating an effective process for resolving disputes. Finally, mobile carriers should put in place an effective dispute resolution process that gives clear information to consumers about how to dispute suspicious charges and seek refunds for unauthorized charges. As the report notes, consumers have often complained that carrier refund processes are difficult and inconsistent. In addition, the report calls on carriers, where possible, to give consumers who were crammed refunds of recurring monthly charges including previous months, and when a third-party is stopped from billing due to cramming, to notify consumers whose bills were charged so they can seek refunds for those charges.

In addition to these recommendations, the report notes that after the Commission’s 2013 mobile cramming roundtable and FTC and state enforcement actions to combat mobile cramming, there has been a move away from premium SMS billing, which typically relies on text messages ostensibly sent to consumers to initiate charges. In place of premium SMS billing, the report notes a trend toward what is called direct carrier billing, in which charges can be placed on a consumer’s mobile bill through a mobile website or app. While major carriers have moved away from premium SMS, the report notes that the recommended consumer protections should apply to direct carrier billing or any other mechanism for placing third-party charges on mobile phone bills.

As noted in the report, the FTC is joined by important partners in its efforts to protect against mobile cramming, including state attorneys general and the Federal Communications Commission.

The Commission vote to issue the report was 5-0.

The Federal Trade Commission works for consumers to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices and to provide information to help spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish, visit the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). The FTC enters complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to more than 2,000 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. The FTC’s website provides free information on a variety of consumer topics. Like the FTC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to press releases for the latest FTC news and resources.

MEDIA CONTACT: Jay Mayfield, Office of Public Affairs
202-326-2181

STAFF CONTACT: Duane Pozza, Bureau of Consumer Protection
202-326-2041

Heather Allen, Bureau of Consumer Protection
202-326-2038

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