It often takes law enforcement a long time to bring the hammer down on scammers. Recently, a federal judge handed out $14 million penalty to BlueHippo Funding and its former C.E.O. I’ve been tracking this company since the mid 2000’s.
BlueHippo Funding came on our radar at what was then My9 News. Many in our urban audience struggled to get credit, so when BlueHippo, in about 2003, began advertising on the Internet and TV, our station included, that anyone could buy a computer and other electronic gear without a credit check, it seemed heaven sent.
Well, like all these too-good-to-be-true offers, people quickly found out there was a big catch. We began getting calls from viewers. They complained about hidden finance charges. They said computers and flat screen TVs that they paid hundreds of dollars for never arrived, and that the customer service call center was impossible to navigate. BlueHippo didn’t make the computers or other electronics that the company sold. It bought them from third parties if and when it fulfilled orders.
Armed with a stack of complaints, photographer Paul Tsakos and I drove down to a suburban office building in Baltimore, Maryland, and made an unannounced visit with our camera to the company headquarters.
Joe Rensin, the super confident company C.E.O., and his lawyer, met with us in their conference room and defended Blue Hippo’s practices. Rensin insisted that his company provided a needed service for underserved consumers. He dismissed the complaints as misunderstandings and promised to make good on a few of the cases that we pointed out to him.
We reported the story and although we may have helped a few consumers, I felt like a mosquito that gets swatted away by a big hand.
In 2008 the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sued BlueHippo Funding and BlueHippo Capital claiming it violated the Truth In Lending Law and made phony claims to thousands of consumers, many of whom paid for but never received computers.
In a court supervised settlement BlueHippo agreed to pay $3.5 million, and promised to stop its questionable financing scheme. But the FTC found the company didn’t keep its promise. In 2009, The FTC charged BlueHippo with violating the settlement. It alleged that “…between April and December of 2008, they flouted the 2008 order by contracting with thousands of consumers to finance new computers, but in most instances failing to provide the computers and failing to disclose key aspects of their refund policy.”
Judge Paul A. Crotty found the company in contempt and said it violated the deal. In a ruling he wrote that between April 10, 2008, and July 24, 2009, “55,892 consumers paid BlueHippo $14,062,627.51 in connection with orders for computers and received no merchandise from BlueHippo”.
The judge ordered Rensin to hand over $8 million to the FTC for refunds to consumers. BlueHippo appealed the contempt ruling and filed for bankruptcy. Joe Rensin left the company and in his appeals of the contempt charge complained that his legal due process was violated.
The case dragged on until April 19, 2016. Judge Crotty issued an order declaring that Rensin pay $8 million in restitution to consumers within seven days and gave him time over the next year to pay the additional money, which would bring the payback up to almost $14 million.
So no one goes to prison. But it looks like consumers will get some money back.