Scammer in trouble again

A millionaire, already in prison for credit card fraud, is accused of foreclosure deceit.

By Jeff Testerman, Times Staff Writer
Published March 4, 2008

The Federal Trade Commission has accused onetime telemarketing tycoon Peter J. Porcelli, two associates and six companies of violating federal consumer protection laws by using a phony nonprofit to lure desperate homeowners into a foreclosure salvage scam.

The nonprofit, called the Safe Harbour Foundation, targeted Florida homeowners facing foreclosure, promising a guaranteed solution to save homes and imperiled credit.

Instead, Safe Harbour steered clients to a related company, Silverstone Lending, which made short-term loans with rates as high as 100 percent, then "bullied or tricked" them into signing over deeds to their homes in the event of default, the FTC said.

The charge tracks details of Porcelli's Safe Harbour-Silverstone loan scheme published in the St. Petersburg Times in May.

In filings in federal court late last week, the FTC says Porcelli's loan operation violated the federal Home Ownership and Equity Protection Act by extending credit based on home equity and without regard to borrowers' ability to pay and by using "negative amortization" that made loans higher at the end of the term than at the beginning.

The FTC complaint also says the Safe Harbour-Silverstone scheme violated federal truth-in-lending laws by failing to provide borrowers with accurate disclosures of loan terms, including annual interest rates which in one case was underestimated by more than 72 percent.

In seeking an injunction against Porcelli and his companies, the FTC also named as defendants Bonnie Harris and Christopher Tomasulo, longtime Porcelli associates who are listed in the complaint as "managers" of Safe Harbour and Silverstone.

Porcelli, 55, is an Oldsmar businessman who made millions in direct mail, laser printing and telemarketing and poured a fortune into his Tampa Smokers, a fast-pitch softball team that won two world championships.

Porcelli came under FTC scrutiny in 2002, when the agency accused him and his Largo-based Bay Area Business Council of defrauding hard-luck consumers with a phony credit card offer. Telemarketers offered a MasterCard for a fee of $159 to $200.

About 165,000 victims ended up with a dummy credit card backed with a phony magnetic strip, while Porcelli and his partners made off with $12.5-million.

In 2004, a federal judge issued a permanent injunction prohibiting Porcelli from offering credit, loans or financing of any kind.

Last year, a federal grand jury in Illinois converted the FTC's civil charges to criminal indictments of Porcelli for conspiracy, wire fraud and mail fraud. Porcelli pleaded guilty and in January began serving a 13-year prison sentence.

In a second filing last week, the FTC asked that Porcelli be found in contempt of court for violating the injunction against offering credit. The FTC also seeks a contempt finding against Harris, Tomasulo and Clearwater attorney Thomas Little, who represented Porcelli.

In the second filing, the FTC asks a judge to order a refund of all money taken in by the loan operation, and a halt to all actions involving foreclosures or loan collections by Safe Harbour and Silverstone.

That provides some relief to Sarasota construction worker Guy Spennato, 36, who needed about $13,000 to catch up on his home mortgage and was stuck with a $45,000 loan after seeking help from Safe Harbour. His home ownership is in jeopardy because the new loan has now been foreclosed.

"They were just out to steal your home and your credit, and this is still hanging over my head," Spennato said Monday. "It's about time we got some good news."

Jeff Testerman can be reached at testerman@sptimes.com or 813 226-3422.