Nine arrests and 13 house searches: Lucerne investigators take on an illustrious firm ring.
The Lucerne criminal investigation authorities have turbulent times behind them: No less than 13 house searches were carried out it in Lucerne, Zug, St. Gallen and in both Appenzell cantons in June, as confirmed to the Tages Anzeiger by press spokesman Simon Kopp. Whole offices were cleared, servers confiscated, crate-loads of files taken. Nine persons were temporarily held in custody.
The companies Novachannel AG, Intercable Verlag AG, Ovag International AG, Premium Recovery AG, and Maiwolf Holding AG are suspected of fraud and unfair competition on a large scale. The sending of forms world-wide for directory listings which give the impression of being free of charge – with the price well hidden in the small print, and the “order” masked by confusing sentences. The Zurich newspaper Tages Anzeiger is in possession of dozens of variants of such forms. They were sent not only to companies, but also to small traders and charities. Filling out the form would conclude a contract for many years for more than 1000 Swiss francs per year, and defaulting “customers” are coerced to pay by the group's own internationally active debt collecting agencies.
Each year the firms thereby earn millions, Swiss federal agencies are overwhelmed by a complaints from annoyed “customers” and fear for the reputation of Switzerland abroad. The activities of this network are the principal reason, why the office of the Swiss Secretary of State for Economics Seco is pressing for a revision of the law on unfair competition
Third raid since 2005
Already in 2005 the police, on account of a criminal complaint be Seco, conducted the first house searches in this environment. In 2006 files were again seized. The did not influence the directory swindlers in the slightest, they continued as before; the clan was led at that time by Hamburg businessman Meinolf Lüdenbach
The Lucrene prosecutors are only pulling on a small thread of a monstrous tangled ball of firms, which is difficult to unravel. Over the 25 years of its existence, well over 80 companies have belonged or still belong either directly to the group, or belong to its surroundings, as research by Tages Anzeiger shows. The network extends from Thailand, Singapore to Europe, from the USA via Mexico to South Africa.
Systematic challenge of Court decisions
In the middle of 2008 the district court of Lucerne forbade Novachannel AG from continuing to dispatch their misleading forms. As usual in such cases the address swindler can uses all available legal instances - Novachannel's boss Michael Röwe appealed to the appeal court of Lucerne. This court smacked the appeal down; Tages Anzeiger has a copy of the judgment. Therein it is ordered that the ruling be published in major newspapers in 28 countries - from Cambodia to Peru. Now a further appeal is pending at the Federal supreme court in Lausanne. Contesting judgments is simply a systematic dodge: As long time as the judgments are not final – i.e. are still under appeal, the firms can blithely carry on sending out the forms. Nevertheless, in Italy, Belgium and Spain companies of this network have had to pay fines since 2006 totaling the equivalent of over 1.8 million Swiss francs.
Because the pressure in Switzerland continues to grow, since at the end of 2008 several firms of this clique have tried to establish new bases abroad. Intercable Verlag AG is a good example: Their managing director Adrian Wittmer appears to have come up with the idea of establishing a holding company in Delaware, USA, to capitalize a new directory company in Hungary called Central European Advertising. It took over all “contracts” of Intercable Verlag and sent out invoices anew. Conveniently Wittmer’s old business partners act as stooges.
Mud attack against Seco
In Austria the network landed so far its most remarkable coup: Under the label Art-X 1998 they started in 1998 a first “Erotik supermarket”. In the meantime this sex shop chain has come to dominates the market. This success obviously provided the impetus for the start of the company Novachannel AG to develop an “international Erotic-portal in the Internet” with Swinger Channel, dating ads., sexshop. This was done in close co-operation with the Ingolstädt company Eye-Net GmbH. This company was led by an ex-Novachannel-co-workers. They operate today apart from a sex-partner-swapping site a forum named Internetvictims (www.internetvictims.de/forum), where critics of the directory racket are mentioned in connection with paedophiles and terrorists. They have even tried to discredit the lawyers within Seco
Also with Hotelguide.com they managed it to high spheres. At the beginning the company stood under control of the directory swindlers. After shareholder changes it acquired some of Lucerne’s outstanding business leaders. Among others, Gerry Leumann is President of the Board of Directors - his Mrs. Helen Leumann Würsch is an FDP city councilor. Even the publishers of the Basel newspaper “Basler Zeitung” (Baz) was a partner: For short time CEO Beat Meyer acted a representative on the board of directors.
Contrary to other companies of the directory networks, which conned hotels in large numbers with misleading forms, the Hotelguide never appeared directly as a directory swindler. However all was not well there either. In 2007 a sales representative was found guilty by the Lucerne appeals court of several counts of forgery. His job was to attract advertising orders for Hotelguide. Apparently he simply signed the contracts of the alleged customers himself.