Travell Thomas has made a good living as a professional poker player, racking up more than half a million dollars in earnings.
But that’s not his most lucrative occupation, according to federal prosecutors. They say the 38-year-old resident of Orchard Park ran a scheme that coerced thousands of victims nationwide into overpaying their debts by at least $31 million.
Thomas, the owner and CEO of the 4 Star Resolution debt-collection firm, pleaded guilty Tuesday in federal court in New York to two felony charges in connection with the business that coerced thousands of victims nationwide into overpaying their debts between 2010 and February 2015.
“As he admitted today, Travell Thomas ran a massive, fraudulent debt-collection scheme through which he and his cohorts stole over $31 million from his vulnerable victims,” said Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. “Thomas instructed his debt collectors to threaten, intimidate, and lie to their victims by overstating their debts and making false claims about what would happen to them if they didn’t pay up.”
Thomas abandoned his poker face during the court appearance, bursting into tears several times as he pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of wire fraud in connection with the case, according to New York City media accounts.
Thomas is a professional poker player who, as of a year ago, had $510,885 in tournament earnings as well as two World Series of Poker gold rings, according to the Poker News website.
His Twitter page identifies him as “the T_Meister better known as the terminator.” It includes musings on poker and the Buffalo Bills, as well as a September 2015 endorsement of Donald Trump for president.
Thomas’ debt collection employees falsely inflated the debts consumers owed, a practice known as “juicing” their accounts, Bharara’s office said. Thomas also placed debts with more than one debt collector so that victims could be coerced into paying debts more than once.
In addition, Thomas drafted and disseminated scripts for his debt collectors to follow, Bharara said. Using aliases, debt collectors called debtors and made a series of false statements and false threats.
Sometimes the debt collectors claimed to be with law enforcement or local government, or accused the victims of a crime and warned they would be prosecuted.
In other cases, Thomas’ employees told victims that their driver’s licenses would be suspended or they would be sued for nonpayment of their debts.
In their lawsuit against Thomas’ firm, the Federal Trade Commission and New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman cited what they called a typical example of a 4 Star employee.
The debt collector identified himself as “Detective Jeff Ramsay” and left a voice-mail message for a Washington State consumer, claiming that he was trying to serve a bench warrant on the consumer for “check fraud.”
“... I will be back out to your place of residence, between the hours of 4 and 6 p.m.,” the bogus detective says. “You are to have two forms of identification, no firearms or narcotics or loose animals on the premises...”
The FTC and Schneiderman sought to shut down Thomas’ debt collection firms – 4 Star Resolution LLC, Profile Management Inc. and International Recovery Service LLC – in February 2015.
Court papers describe 4 Star, also doing business under four other names, as a Colorado limited-liability company that operated out of a number of addresses, including two on Seneca Street in Buffalo and additional ones on Genesee Street and Walden Avenue in Cheektowaga and Transit Road in Depew.
The FTC later referred the case to Bharara, who followed up eight months later by indicting Thomas, accusing debt collectors at one of his firms of taking “ruthless advantage of the desperate situation in which the victims found themselves.”
Thomas’ guilty plea is the 11th in what Bharara called a landmark consumer fraud case. Thomas pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, where he was charged a year ago.
Thomas and his co-owner and co-defendant, Maurice Sessum of Buffalo, took approximately $1.5 million in cash through the scheme, Bharara’s office said. Bharara also filed charges against Sessum, but the case against him has not yet been resolved.
About $1.4 million of the money was cashed from banks and ATMs, and tens of thousands of dollars were used to pay for Thomas’ gambling expenses, his wedding reception, tickets for sporting events and jewelry.
His sentencing, before U.S. District Court Judge Katherine Polk Failla, is scheduled for Feb. 10. Each of the two charges Thomas pleaded guilty to carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and three years of supervised release.
Earlier, company managers Tacoby Thomas, Heather Gasta, Mark Lavin and John Salatino pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and wire fraud in connection with the case. Debt collectors Jessica Mann, Charles Starks, William Clark, Columbus Simmons, Michael Calandra, and Jennifer Sherk pleaded guilty to the same charges.
Starks, Clark, Calandra, and Mann were sentenced to prison terms of at least a year and a day. The other defendants who pleaded guilty have not yet been sentenced.
Thomas previously denied the charges against him.
In a post on Thomas’ Twitter page a year ago, attorney Robert A. Scalione said, “From 2010 through 2015, Thomas and his partners ran a legitimate collection agency that employed several hundred people. If one or more of those employees engaged in unlawful activity while attempting to collect a debt, it was done so without Mr. Thomas’ knowledge or consent.”