MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) — A federal judge sentenced a Montana man Friday to two years in prison after prosecutors said he tricked people into paying as much as $70 million in unauthorized charges that were placed on phone bills nationwide.
Steven Sann also was ordered to forfeit $500,000 during the sentencing by U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen in Missoula. Prosecutors said he had transferred that amount to his personal investment accounts.
“Sann engaged in a complex manipulation of tens of thousands of consumers across the country,” Montana U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter said in a statement. “We have held this man accountable for his crimes and sent a shot across the bow warning others who would engage in similar conduct.”
Sann, 61, of Stevensville pleaded guilty in April to wire fraud and money laundering in a plea agreement with prosecutors that dropped 33 other criminal charges. Christensen followed the sentencing recommendations in the plea deal.
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A Federal Trade Commission investigation found that Sann ran nine companies involved in the practice known as cramming, which places unauthorized charges on phone bills.
Between 2008 and 2012, customers unwittingly signed up for voicemail accounts or fax services while answering questions on websites offering free products or job assistance.
Most didn’t realize they were being charged between $10 and $25 a month for the services, investigators said.
Sann and company officials lied to the billing aggregators they employed to place the charges, saying they received no complaints of cramming even though they had actually received hundreds, prosecutors said.
Sann’s companies have returned more than $40 million to customers, authorities said.
The FTC filed a civil action against Sann, his wife, son, accountant and the nine companies in 2013. That lawsuit had been placed on hold while the criminal case against Sann was pending.
The companies are American eVoice Ltd.; Emerica Media Corp.; FoneRight Inc.; Global Voice Mail Ltd.; HearYou2 Inc.; Network Assurance Inc.; SecuratDat Inc.; Techmax Solutions Inc.; and Voice Mail Professionals Inc.
Sann had requested a 90-day delay in sentencing so he could get his personal and legal affairs in order.
His attorney Peter Lacney cited the FTC action, a bankruptcy case appeal, Montana Department of Revenue appeal and Internal Revenue Service audit as pending issues that Sann is seeking to finalize.
Christensen denied the request, saying Sann will still be able to communicate with his attorneys when he is in prison.
This story has been updated to correct Sann’s age to 61.