Owners of fake tech company plead guilty to defrauding Southern Illinois customers

Two South Florida men who owned and operated a fake tech support business known as Client Care Experts (CCE) have pleaded guilty to wire fraud charges in Southern Illinois.

On Wednesday, Michael Austin Seward, 32, of Deerfield Beach, and Kevin James McCormick, 46, of Delray Beach, admitted that their company was a scam, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois said.

The two were part owners of CCE—formerly known as “First Choice Tech Support”—based in Boynton Beach, Florida. According to the U.S. Attorney, Seward was the chief executive officer and McCormick was the chief financial officer. As part of their guilty pleas, both men admitted they also oversaw the operations of another fraudulent tech support business called ABC Repair Tech (ABC) in Costa Rica.

According to court documents, Seward and McCormick purchased pop-up advertisements that would appear suddenly on a person’s computer screen. The pop-ups were made to look like system warnings and would falsely tell the person that the computer had serious problems, like viruses or malware.

The pop-ups also typically told victims not to shut down the computer or all data would be lost, according to a release. Instead, the ads would direct the person to call a toll-free number and speak to a sales representative, who would continue the fraud.

The sales representatives would convince the victims to grant them remote access to the computer, where normal computer functions and routine process were highlighted as evidence of serious computer problems, court documents said. Victims were never told that the pop-up ads that had hijacked the computer were just advertisements purchased by the tech support company, or that in most cases the person could make the ads go away by simply rebooting the computer.

Instead, sale representatives sold remote “tune-ups” for $250 and anti-virus protection software for another $400, said the govenment’s complaint. If a victim said the prices were too high, sales representatives would offer discounts for being a senior citizen, military veteran or having another other circumstance.

From 2013 to 2016, CCE and ABC combined to defraud more than 40,000 people in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, several U.S. territories, all 10 Canadian province, the U.K. and several other foreign countries. According to the U.S. Attorney Steven Weinhoeft, at least 57 victims of the scams were residents of the Southern District of Illinois, representing 22 of the district’s 38 counties, including St. Clair and Madison counties.

A news release from his office Wednesday stated that the company took in over $25 million through the scam.

Before their guilty plea, Seward and McCormick were supposed to have a trial on Sept. 9, the release stated. The case had been pending since May 2018, when a federal grand jury in East St. Louis returned a superseding indictment charging them and their former vice president, Grant Clark Wasik, 35, of Boynton Beach, with one count of conspiracy and 13 counts of wire fraud. Wasik pleaded guilty to the conspiracy count earlier this year.

Judge Joe Billy McDade from the Central District of Illinois will sentence Seward and McCormick on Nov. 18 and Wasik on Oct. 8.

Michael Cary Lawing, the former CEO of ABC, will be sentenced on Oct. 15 by Chief Judge Nancy J. Rosenstengel of the Southern District of Illinois, the release stated. Lawing, 34, of Lincolnton, North Carolina, pleaded guilty to his role in the conspiracy late last year.

Since April 2017, 14 other employees of CCE and ABC have also pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges in the Southern District of Illinois.

Another salesperson at CCE, Erica Crowell, 30, of Maple Shade, New Jersey, remains under federal indictment and is scheduled for a trial on Sept. 9, the release stated.

Because the crimes allegedly took place in connection with telemarketing and victimized 10 or more persons over the age of 55, the maximum punishment in each case is 30 years imprisonment, the release stated. The defendants could also be ordered to serve up to 5 years of supervised release and pay a fine of up to $250,000. Under federal law, restitution to identified victims is mandatory.

Ten of the convicted defendants have been sentenced already, mostly with between one and 15 years in prison, plus restitution.

The cases are part of an ongoing investigation by the St. Louis Field Office of the Chicago Division of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. The cases are being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Scott A. Verseman, Ranley R. Killian and Nathan D. Stump.

The Florida Attorney General’s Office raided CCE in June 2016 and has been cooperating with the federal investigation, in addition to bringing its own civil enforcement action against CCE under Florida State Law.

Hana Muslic has been a public safety reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat since August 2018, covering everything from crime and courts to accidents, fires and natural disasters. She is a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and her previous work can be found in The Lincoln Journal-Star and The Kansas City Star.