Chief Assistant Attorney General, Consumer Protection UnitOklahoma Attorney General's Office
This article was originally published in the September 2019 edition of the NAGTRI Center for Consumer Protection Monthly newsletter.
News stories of widespread consumer fraud and its grave impact on the public are frequently publicized. Historically, state attorneys general have seized numerous opportunities to join forces to stop consumer abuse, investigate scams and fraud, advocate for consumer rights, and provide for greater consumer protection on a national scale. However, occurring even more often than news headlines of national significance are stories of individual consumers being victimized and defrauded by individual con men.
In 1999, Oklahoma law was amended to expressly grant to the Office of the Attorney General the power to investigate and prosecute suspected violations of consumer laws.1 Pursuant to the Oklahoma Consumer Protection Act (OCPA),2 the term “consumer laws”3 includes the crimes of: embezzlement; false personation; obtaining or attempting to obtain money or property by trick or deception; the unauthorized use of credit and debit cards; deceptive advertising; and certain provisions of the Oklahoma Computer Crimes Act.4 All of the criminal offenses included in the OCPA have the potential to be filed as either misdemeanors or felonies and may result in a term of imprisonment, fines, penalties, and/or restitution.5 The wide range of prospective crimes and punishment ranges, coupled with the authority and reach of statewide jurisdiction, have proven to be an essential and effective means of combating consumer scams and fraud.
Con men and scam artists frequently move from place to place across county lines in their attempts to target new and unsuspecting victims and evade detection by law enforcement. Furthermore, city and county law enforcement officials may not have the resources to coordinate efforts with their counterparts in neighboring areas. State attorneys general have the benefit of statewide jurisdiction, so we have the ability to focus our efforts on a broader scale. In turn, we have a more accurate view of the defendant’s reach and victim impact because our consideration of the cases includes a comprehensive examination of all material facts and information. Furthermore, using a singular prosecutor for all cases involving the same defendant allows for the development of a sound and well-reasoned case strategy and plea recommendation.
For example, our office recently received consumer complaints from several victims in three separate counties which all concerned the same suspect. If each complaint had been examined on its own, the monetary values might have seemed modest. However, because of the investigative and prosecutorial authority provided under the above referenced statutes, all of the complaints were considered and processed together. Through our statewide complaint process, we determined that the true impact of the defendant’s crimes totaled more than $156,000. As the result of our expanded jurisdictional and criminal statutory authority, we can file numerous felony charges and benefit from a streamlined prosecutorial approach.
Another beneficial aspect of our prosecutorial authority is that we can not only obtain punishments of imprisonment, fines, and/or penalties, but can also assess restitution for the direct benefit of victimized consumers. Restitution is frequently ordered in our criminal prosecutions as a condition of probation, either as the result of a deferred or suspended sentence, or upon release from incarceration under a split sentence.6 Because our office directly supervises the collection of restitution funds in our cases, we are able to provide victims with a more straightforward and personal means of communication. Our oversight of the restitution process also provides us with immediate and firsthand knowledge of any issues or delays in payments. As a result, if a defendant refuses to pay the court-ordered restitution, or is unable to comply with the payment schedule, our office may request an amendment to the payment terms, seek additional payments from the defendant for arrearages, or, in cases of non-compliance, file for an acceleration or revocation of the defendant’s probation. The financial impact of consumer fraud can be disastrous for the affected victims, especially for senior citizens who are frequent targets of consumer scams. Our efforts ensure the continued accountability of offenders and provide victims with repayment of monies they would otherwise have to seek civil remedies to collect.
In addition to other authorized penalties, the OCPA provides that any person convicted in a criminal proceeding of a violation of the Act shall be guilty of a misdemeanor for the first offense.7 However, if the value of the money or property at issue is $500 or more, or if the conviction is for a second or subsequent violation of the OCPA, the violation is a felony with a punishment of up to 10 years imprisonment and/or a fine of up to $5,000.8 The predicate offense created by the statute ensures that repeat con artists and fraudsters are appropriately identified and prosecuted within the judicial system.
Without our ability to criminally prosecute consumer fraud, many victims would not have means to seek justice. Oklahoma’s criminal statutory provisions ensure that consumers harmed by fraud or scams have access to assistance and relief even if their cases are not of global or national significance. As state attorneys general, we have the unique opportunity to use our statewide jurisdiction and prosecutorial authority to combat the devastating effects of crimes against consumers.
- Okla. Stat. tit. 15, ‘762 [↩]
- See Okla Stat. tit. 15, ‘751, et seq. [↩]
- Okla. Stat. tit. 15, ‘752 (17) [↩]
- Okla. Stat. tit. 21, ‘1951, et seq. [↩]
- See Okla. Stat. tit. 21, ‘1451; ‘1541.1; ‘1541.2; ‘1502; ‘1533.1; ‘1533.2; ‘1550.2; and ”1550.21-1550.43. The available punishment types and ranges often depend on the value of money or property at issue and the prior criminal history of the defendant. [↩]
- A judgment and sentence that includes both a term of imprisonment and a term of probation [↩]
- Okla. Stat. tit. 15, ‘761.1 (E) [↩]
- Id. [↩]