AG HOOD SECURES $26 MILLION FOR MISSISSIPPI IN SETTLEMENT WITH MOODY’S

January 17, 2017
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Rating service to pay nearly $864 million to states, federal government over claims of deceptive conduct

Attorney General Jim Hood announced today that Moody’s will pay Mississippi more than $26 million to settle allegations that the credit rating agency engaged in deceptive conduct during the height of the financial crisis.

Moody’s Corporation, Moody’s Investors Service, Inc., and Moody’s Analytics, Inc. agreed to pay a total of $863,791,823 to 21 states, the District of Columbia and the federal government to resolve claims that Moody’s misrepresented its independence and objectivity when rating structured finance securities. Attorney General Hood’s lawsuit alleged that Moody’s ratings of structured finance securities were tainted by the company’s drive to win business and its concerns for market share. Structured finance securities, particularly those comprised of sub-prime mortgages, were at the center of the financial crisis.

In addition to the monetary settlement, Moody’s has agreed to take specific compliance measures intended to prevent the same problems from ever reoccurring.

Attorney General Hood and Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen led the investigation in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Justice. The two AGs also led the multistate litigation against Standard & Poor’s, which culminated in a $1.375 billion settlement for 20 states and the federal government in 2015. Standard & Poor’s is a competitor of Moody’s. Mississippi received $33 million in the settlement with S&P.

“Moody’s reckless conduct went unchecked for years, feeding a subprime mortgage bubble,” Attorney General Hood said. “While Moody’s profited handsomely, the economy crumbled as people lost their homes.  Pension funds, retirement funds, and other investment vehicles in Mississippi and across the country lost billions of dollars as the value of securities with inflated ratings plummeted. This settlement is another important step toward holding accountable those responsible for our mortgage crisis.”

The settlement is the successful culmination of five years of hard-fought litigation for Mississippi, Attorney General Hood said.  In 2011, the Attorney General sued both Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s for violations of the Mississippi Consumer Protection Act. The lawsuit alleged that the companies misrepresented their independence and objectivity when rating structured finance securities, including residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), which derive their value from the monthly payments consumers make on their mortgages. 

Mississippi’s lawsuit alleged that Moody’s assigned inflated credit ratings to toxic assets packaged and sold by the Wall Street investment banks in an effort to curry favor, continue and grow business with these banks.  This alleged misconduct mainly occurred between 2004 and 2007, though it began as early as 2001.

Moody’s represented to consumers that its Aaa rating, its highest rating, carried a lower level of risk than other ratings. The Attorney General alleged that Moody’s manipulated its process so that, in reality, the Aaa rating represented a greater risk than Moody’s disclosed to investors.  The lawsuit asserts that Moody’s gave in to pressure from big banks, which were powerful, repeat customers that paid Moody’s millions of dollars to rate these securities.  The banks needed Aaa ratings in order to sell these securities to institutional investors, such as pension funds and retirement plans. 

“This was a complex case that involved reviewing hundreds of thousands of documents and interviewing dozens of former Moody’s executives in order to understand the full range of this misconduct,” Attorney General Hood said. “I appreciate Attorney General Jepsen and his office, as well as the U.S. Department of Justice, for their partnership. This was a successful federal-state collaboration that demonstrates our commitment to ensuring consumers have a level playing field against powerful corporate interests.”

As part of the settlement, Moody’s has agreed to a detailed statement of facts in connection with the way it rated RMBS and CDOs leading up to the financial crisis, and significant compliance terms – including an annual certification by the CEO of Moody’s Corporation, which will be provided to Mississippi every year for the next four years, certifying that Moody’s will follow certain compliance commitments. These compliance measures are designed to address conflicts of interest and to protect the integrity and transparency of rating methodologies in order to prevent the problems that created the 2008 financial crisis from occurring again. 

“The credit rating industry was essentially unregulated when we started this case,” Attorney General Hood said. “Since then, the SEC implemented rules in 2014 that came about largely as a result of our litigation against S&P.  In total, the credit ratings agencies have paid the states and federal government $2.2 billion to settle our claims of deceptive conduct and violations of federal law.  This is a substantial sum that will deter similar misconduct in the future.  Just as importantly, these settlements have shifted core policies and procedures in the credit rating industry such that Moody’s and S&P now operate in a way that is more transparent, independent and objective.  Consumers and the investing public have better protections as a result of our successes here.”

In addition to Mississippi, the states involved in the settlement are Arizona, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Washington as well as the District of Columbia.

 


ATTORNEY GENERAL’S CYBER CRIME TEAM ARRESTS TWO LAUDERDALE COUNTY RESIDENTS FOR POSSESSION OF CHILD PORNOGRAPHY

January 13, 2017

Attorney General Jim Hood announced today that two Lauderdale County men have been arrested, and each has been charged with one count of child exploitation.

Christian Shows, 23, was arrested Wednesday.

Christian Shows, 23, was arrested Wednesday.

Christian Shows, 23, was arrested Wednesday at his home by investigators with the Attorney General’s Cyber Crime Unit/Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force with assistance from the Lauderdale County Sheriff’s Department, an affiliate agency of the task force.

William Stephen Robinson, 57, was also arrested at his home on Thursday in an unrelated case.

Both cases stemmed from investigators executing search warrants to the homes of each defendant following two separate investigations of online activity.

William Stephen Robinson, 57, was arrested Thursday.

William Stephen Robinson, 57, was arrested Thursday.

The defendants were both booked into the Lauderdale County jail, and bonds were set at $25,000 each.

“We are unable to release more details at this time because the investigations are ongoing,” said Attorney General Hood.  “However, we do appreciate the assistance of the Lauderdale County Sheriff’s Department, and these cases are examples of how the Internet Crimes Against Task Force continues to help put child predators behind bars.”

If convicted, Shows and Robinson both face up to 40 years each in prison, and both defendants face up to $500,000 in fines. As with all cases, a charge is merely an accusation, and a defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

The two cases will both be prosecuted by Special Assistant Attorney General Brandon Ogburn of the Attorney General’s Cyber Crime Unit.


ATTORNEY GENERAL JIM HOOD ANNOUNCES 2017 LEGISLATIVE AGENDA

January 12, 2017

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Attorney General Hood encourages the Legislature to approve meaningful legislation in the 2017 session to curb opioid abuse.

Attorney General Jim Hood today once again called upon the Mississippi Legislature to increase funding for the Department of Mental Health and said the state must take action during the 2017 legislative session to stem the epidemic of opioid abuse.

In a news conference announcing his legislative agenda, Attorney General Hood said lawmakers should make it a priority to improve mental-health treatment in Mississippi. Last year, the Legislature cut the Department of Mental Health’s budget by $8.3 million. A few months later, the U.S. Department of Justice sued the state, accusing Mississippi of violating federal law in the way it delivers services to the mentally ill.

Attorney General Hood also encouraged the Legislature to approve meaningful legislation to curb opioid abuse. Among the Attorney General’s proposed bills is one that would require health care professionals to have the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program checked before prescribing controlled substances such as opioids.

“Opioid abuse has affected millions of Americans, and we see the dramatic impact of such abuse right here in Mississippi,” Attorney General Hood said. “The devastating result of this abuse is broken families, escalating medical costs, overdoses and deaths. We must tackle this problem, and we must fund the state agencies that have the resources to address this crisis.”

A year ago, Attorney General Hood recommended that legislators allocate more than $20 million to state agencies for various programs. However, little of that money was appropriated for those purposes. In fact, since 2008, budget constraints have forced the Department of Mental Health to reduce the number of beds by approximately 500.

“We have a responsibility to the least among us. While we have made some improvements in our mental-health system over the last few years, we can’t lose focus. Nor can we choose to enrich greedy out-of-state corporations through tax cuts rather than meet the needs of people hurting right here in Mississippi,” Attorney General Hood said.

Other legislative priorities for the Attorney General include:

·       Establishing an Internet use tax.  A tax on Internet sales could bring in more than $130 million annually, according to one estimate. More importantly, such a tax would level the playing field for brick-and-mortar stores that are required to levy sales tax. AG Hood recently urged the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider a 1992 ruling that requires a business to have a physical presence in a state in order to be required to remit sales and use taxes. The AG’s proposal would refine and expand that requirement to include most Internet businesses.

·       Early voting. A pre-Election Day voting period would begin three weeks before each election.

·       Campaign finance. Candidates and political committees would be required to itemize credit-card purchases.

·       Wiretapping authority for human trafficking investigations. The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and the Attorney General’s Office could be authorized by a judge to use wiretaps if the agencies demonstrate probable cause to believe the wiretap will provide evidence of the commission of a felony under the Human Trafficking Act.

·       Indecent Assault. There is currently not an effective method to charge an individual with fondling a competent adult. Such acts are often charged as simple assault, but are being dismissed because that charge requires bodily injury or an attempt to cause bodily injury as an element for conviction. Adding “indecent assault” as a crime would correct this problem.

·       Sexual assault protection order. Courts would be authorized to issue, as part of the sentence, a criminal protection order against anyone convicted of rape or sexual battery, which would prohibit the offender from having contact with the victim. The order would be applicable regardless whether there had been a previous domestic relationship between the offender and victim.

·       Internet purchasing notification. Internet retailers would be required to inform the state the monetary amount of online purchases by Mississippi residents.

·       Currency forgery/counterfeiting. The punishment for counterfeiting or forging currency would be enhanced to a felony.


Volunteer at Brookhaven Nursing Center Arrested for Fondling Vulnerable Person

January 4, 2017

Attorney General Jim Hood announced today that a Brookhaven man has been arrested for fondling a vulnerable adult following his indictment by a Lincoln County grand jury.

James Henry Cason, 63, turned himself in last week. He is charged with one count of fondling of a vulnerable person. Cason was booked into the Lincoln County jail with a bond set at $50,000.

The indictment accuses Cason of touching the buttocks of a resident for the purpose of gratifying his lust while working as a volunteer at a nursing center in Brookhaven. If convicted, Cason faces up to 15 years and up to $5,000 in fines.

The case is being investigated by John David Flowers and will be prosecuted by Special Assistant Attorney General Katie Moulds of the Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit.


Phishing Scams Targeting Accounts of PayPal and Amazon Customers

January 4, 2017

Attorney General Jim Hood today warned Internet users, particularly customers of websites PayPal and Amazon, about the possibility they could be targets of scammers intending to gather sensitive personal information or infect computers with viruses.

“These online services and businesses make it easy for consumers to shop and pay for items online, but there are people out there who want to use this convenience as a way to steal your money, or even worse, your identity,” Attorney General Hood said.

One such scam that has surfaced in recent weeks involves an email with a link alerting the receiver that his or her PayPal account has been limited for security reasons. If a consumer clicks the link contained in the email and submits his or her PayPal username and password to that site, the scammer can steal the consumer’s log-in information.  The scammer can then log in to the consumer’s legitimate PayPal account to spend any remaining funds, bill credit cards or steal personal information. The link provided in the email directs consumers to the spoof PayPal website, which is not secure. It even misspells the word ‘PayPal’.

Other phishing emails that are sent by scammers targeting Amazon customers can be an attempt to steal personal information or install malicious software to the user’s computer. These emails, which look like they are coming from Amazon, show up in various forms:  an order confirmation for items customers didn’t purchase (can also be an attachment to an order confirmation); a request for username and/or password or for other personal information; a request to update payment information; a message with links to fake websites that look like Amazon.com but actually prompt the installation of software. These fraudulent emails frequently contain a forged email address from an Internet Service Provider and usually contain many typographical or grammatical errors.

Attorney General Hood recommends that consumers who have PayPal or Amazon accounts and receive similar emails not click on any links or submit any usernames, passwords or personal information via email.  Instead, go to the companies’ actual websites and use the sites’ secure login to verify any account activity.

“Although these scams have been around for quite some time, they continue to try to lure victims,” Attorney General Hood said. “I encourage consumers to protect themselves from fraud and identity theft on the internet through education and awareness.”

Attorney General Hood offers these tips to help protect against phishing emails:

·       Do not respond to any unsolicited e-mails of this nature.

·       Do not click on any attachments associated with such emails, as they may contain viruses or malware.

·       If you get an email or pop-up message that asks for personal or financial information, do not reply or click on the link in the message. Legitimate companies don’t ask for this information via email.

·       If you are concerned about your account, contact the organization in the email using a telephone number you know to be genuine, or open a new Internet browser session and type in the company’s correct Web address. In any case, don’t cut and paste the link in the message.

·       Don’t email personal or financial information. Email is not a secure method of transmitting personal information.

·       If you initiate a transaction and want to provide your personal or financial information through an organization’s Web site, look for indicators that the site is secure, like a lock icon on the browser’s status bar or a URL for a website that begins “https:” (the “s” stands for “secure”).

·       Use anti-virus software and keep your computer security up to date. Some phishing emails contain software that can harm your computer or track your activities on the Internet without your knowledge. Anti-virus software and a firewall can protect you from inadvertently accepting such unwanted files.

For more educational information on this and other scams, please visit the Consumer Protection Division section of the Attorney General’s website at www.agjimhood.com.  Anyone who suspects his or her personal information has been compromised or thinks they have been a victim of fraud, identity theft or any other scheme should call Attorney General Hood’s Consumer Protection Division Hotline, (800) 281-4418.


RESOLVE TO FIND THE BEST FINANCIAL FIT WHEN JOINING GYM

December 28, 2016

With the new year approaching, many consumers may consider joining a health club to improve their overall fitness or just to shed a few pounds put on during the holidays.

Consumers who plan to hit the gym in coming days as a New Year’s resolution should also resolve to make sure they’re getting a fair deal, Attorney General Jim Hood said. Mississippi state law protects consumers against misrepresentations and fraud in contracts with health clubs.

“Health clubs nationwide will be doing big business in the next few weeks as consumers look to make good on their New Year’s resolutions,” Attorney General Hood said. “It’s important that we all stay financially fit, too, so I hope that consumers do their research to find the right gym at the right price for them. Consumers also have the assurance that state law provides them some protections when they enter into health club contracts.”

Mississippi law requires for-profit health clubs to provide consumers with written copies of membership contracts, and consumers may cancel the contract within five days of the purchase.

Consumers must be shown a comprehensive list of membership plans to prospective members. Clubs are prohibited from selling any plans that aren’t included on the list. In addition, state law prohibits gyms from providing misleading information, representations, notices or advertisements. Specifically, clubs cannot make misrepresentations about qualifications of staff members, the availability or quality of its equipment or results obtained through exercising or weight control programs.

In addition, clubs cannot obligate consumers to a contract longer than 36 months.

Violations of the state law, known as the Health Spa Act, are punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 and a year in prison. Additional remedies under the Consumer Protection Act may also apply.

Attorney General Hood recommended consumers keep these tips in mind when choosing the best health club:

  • Shop around for the best deal. Many gyms may even offer a free trial or introductory period for consumers before requiring a contract.
  • Make sure that the gym’s hours of operation are right for your schedule and that the fitness equipment offered by the gym meets your needs.
  • Keep in mind that gyms may offer a base price for use of equipment, but may assess additional charges for classes
  • Check with your employer, health insurer, or similar groups that may offer benefits or gym-membership discounts.
  • Be aware that health clubs may charge upfront fees, such as registration or processing fees, and ask about those fees before signing a contract. Other fees, such as locker rental, may also apply.
  • Ask whether you will be entitled to take advantage of special deals or price reductions that may be offered after you sign your contract.

For more information about this or other consumer issues, contact the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division at (800) 281-4418.


Hattiesburg Pharmacy Technician Arrested for Multiple Medicaid and Insurance Fraud Charges

December 27, 2016

Attorney General Jim Hood announced today that a Hattiesburg pharmacy technician has been arrested following a joint investigation by the Health and Human Services Division of the Office of Inspector General, the Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit and the Attorney General’s Insurance Integrity Division.

Austin Grant O’dom, 33, was arrested last week following two separate indictments by a Forrest County grand jury. O’dom was booked into the Forrest County Jail and released on a $20,000 bond.

The first indictment charges O’dom with three counts of insurance fraud and three counts of wire fraud. The indictment alleges O’dom submitted fraudulent billing statements in order to obtain money from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mississippi and Caremark for prescriptions that were never ordered. The wire fraud charges are based on the fraudulent forms being transmitted via facsimile across county or state jurisdictional lines, according to the indictment. If convicted of these charges, O’dom faces up to three years in prison for each count of insurance fraud and up to five years in prison for each count of wire fraud.

The second indictment charges O’dom with three counts of Medicaid Fraud and three counts of fraud in connection with state- or federally funded assistance programs. This indictment accuses O’dom of making fraudulent claims of Medicaid and Medicare benefits for valid prescriptions of medications, which were never dispensed to the patients/beneficiaries of Medicaid and Medicare. O’dom also falsely claimed the medications were name-brand but were in fact generic, according to the indictment. If convicted of the Medicaid fraud charges, O’dom faces up to five years in prison and $50,000 in fines for each count. If convicted, O’dom would also be required to pay treble penalties on any money fraudulently received from the Medicaid program. In addition, for the three counts of fraud in connection with state- or federally funded assistance programs, O’dom faces a total of six years in prison and $30,000 in fines, and he would be required to pay full restitution to the Medicare program.

O’dom was formerly employed as a pharmacy technician at a pharmacy in Hattiesburg. As with all cases, a charge is merely an accusation, and a defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

This case will be prosecuted by Special Assistant Attorneys General Katie Moulds and Larry Baker.


Attorney General Jim Hood Warns Yahoo Users of Identity Theft Risk

December 15, 2016

Attorney General Jim Hood today warned Mississippi consumers to take action to protect themselves against identity theft following Yahoo’s announcement that password information for more than one billion email accounts has been compromised.

Yahoo is requiring its users to change passwords, and Attorney General Hood urged Mississippians to do this immediately.  Consumers should also reset passwords for any other accounts that may have the same or similar passwords.

Yahoo has said no personal financial information was exposed in this massive data breach, which occurred in 2013 but was only recently announced. Although the breach occurred years ago, consumers should be aware that information such as names, email addresses, phone numbers, any information in an email message and answers to the security questions used to reset passwords could have been exposed and uncovered by hackers since 2013.  This information could be used to compromise other consumer accounts.

In addition to changing their Yahoo email passwords, consumers should also immediately change their log-in information for all other sites where they use the same or similar passwords. As importantly, if consumers used the same security questions on other websites, those should also be changed.

“Our personal information is becoming increasingly vulnerable to hackers, so we must stay vigilant about our online habits,” Attorney General Hood said. “We can no longer have the expectation that sensitive data will be secure on the internet, so it’s up to us as consumers to be cautious, stay informed and take action to protect ourselves when incidents like this occur.”

Attorney General Hood encouraged consumers to:

·       Change their passwords on Yahoo and any other site where the same or similar passwords are used.

·       Make sure security-question responses for Yahoo are different than for other sites. Using the same questions and responses gives hackers easier access to other accounts.

·       Consider two-factor authentication when using email or financial services online. For most two-factor authentication, also known as two-step verification, users receive a security code via their phone or mobile device that must be entered in addition to a password.

·       Avoid unsolicited emails that seek even more personal information or financial data. Following a large-scale data breach, scammers may attempt to steal a consumer’s identity or access bank accounts by sending out fake notices.

·       Monitor financial accounts for any unusual charges or activity.  Report unauthorized charges immediately. 

For businesses, Attorney General Hood’s office provides a Cybersecurity Guide that includes an overview of potential cybersecurity threats and ways businesses, corporations and government agencies may respond to those threats. The guide also provides advice for what companies should do in the aftermath of a data breach. Find the guide at:  http://www.ago.state.ms.us/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Cybersecurity-Guide1.pdf

For more information about data breaches, identity theft or other consumer issues, visit www.AGJimHood.com or call (800) 281-4418.