CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Laurence A. Sessum, 46, of Matthews, N.C., and Jacqueline Dianne Okomba, 51, of Salisbury, N.C., were sentenced to 135 months and 72 months in prison, respectively, for defrauding victims throughout the United States of at least $5.7 million through their fraudulent Charlotte-based debt collection company, announced Andrew Murray, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina. U.S. District Judge Robert J. Conrad Jr. also ordered the defendants to serve two years under court supervision after they are released from prison.
In April 2019, a federal jury convicted Sessum and Okomba of wire fraud conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Sessum was also convicted of conspiracy to commit money laundering, and wire fraud.
John A. Strong, Special Agent in Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Charlotte Division, joins the U.S. Attorney’s Office in making today’s announcement.
According to filed court documents, trial evidence and witness testimony, and today’s sentencing hearing, from October 2013 to January 2017, Sessum was the owner and operator of Direct Processing LLC (Direct Processing) a fraudulent debt collection company with offices in Mecklenburg County. Sessum was also the leader and organizer of the debt scheme. Okomba, was the registered agent and member-owner of Direct Processing, who also worked as a manager in charge of overseeing other company collectors and managed the finances and bank accounts of Direct Processing.
As part of the scheme, Sessum purchased lists of purportedly outstanding accounts, which the codefendants used to make fraudulent debt collections. Sessum intentionally sought out lists of old and unenforceable debts. Direct Processing used a dialer service to leave automated messages for victims, many of whom were elderly, directing them to contact the company to resolve the purported debts. To induce victims to call back, the automated messages often contained fraudulent and misleading information, including that there was “possible pending litigation” against the victims, or that there was a “process server” attempting to locate them.
When the victims returned the calls, they were connected with collectors working for Direct Processing. The collectors made similar threats and fraudulent statements about the purported debts and regularly used prepared scripts, including scripts handed out by Direct Processing management, that were designed to scare and intimidate victims to pay the purported debts. The defendants’ scheme harmed many elderly and retired victims, several of whom testified at trial about the lies and threats they were told to induce them to make payments.
Direct Processing also sent victims fraudulent documents, prepared to look like legal documents that had been filed in court, demanding restitution. Using threats and other intimidating tactics, company collectors regularly collected amounts that were not owed or they were not authorized to collect. One victim testified during trial that Direct Processing’s aggressive and fraudulent collections tactics made her feel “devastated” out of concern that she would be sent to jail if she failed to pay. That victim lost $1,250 in the scheme.
To disguise the fraudulent nature of the business, collectors often used fake company names when communicating with victims. In addition, Sessum directed others to establish nominee bank accounts, which were used to pay operational and other expenses associated with the fraudulent debt collection company.
When Sessum learned the FBI had seized funds held in an account associated with Direct Processing, Sessum, Okomba, and others removed Direct Processing computers, documents, and records from a location associated with the company in order to impede the federal investigation. When FBI agents arrived at the location to execute a search warrant, they found computer accessories, such as monitors, at collectors’ cubicles but no desktop units. When FBI agents questioned Okomba about the computers that had been removed, Okomba falsely told the agents that Direct Processing did not own any computers.
At today’s sentencing hearings, Judge Conrad said that the conduct was “heinous,” and the collection calls were “wicked.” He also stated that this was “a criminal spree that involved great deception.”
The FBI investigated the case. Assistant United States Attorneys William M. Miller and Maria Vento, of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Charlotte, prosecuted the case.
In March 2019, Andrew Murray, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina, announced the Office’s Elder Justice Initiative, which aims to combat elder financial exploitation by expanding efforts to investigate and prosecute financial scams that target seniors; educate older adults on how to identify scams and avoid becoming victims of financial fraud; and promote greater coordination with law enforcement partners. For more information please visit: https://edit.justice.gov/usao-wdnc/elder-justice-initiative.
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