The criminal investigation branch of the Lucerne police are probing into the question of Internet and address book publishers. Now a year into the investigation the police extended their inquiries to include an illustrious publisher in Zug.
This establishment in Hünenberg, in the Swiss canton on Zug has tradition. Since 1979 Intercable Verlag AG, ‘a renowned Swiss publisher’, which has a ‘history to be proud of ‘. On 20th June the company history was supplemented by a further chapter: In the early morning the police drove up to the red building in the industrial quarter of Hünenberg; Teams from the criminal investigation branches of the Lucerne and Zug police carried out a joint operation to secure business documents.
Intercable belongs to the sphere of activity of the Hamburg businessman Meinolf Lüdenbach. For a year the Lucerne Police have been investigating the activities of Meinolf Lüdenbach's other address book and debt collecting companies Novachannel AG in Lucerne, Ovag International AG in Lucerne and Premium Recovery AG in Zug. The companies are suspected of large scale unfair trade practices. With the raid in Hünenberg the Lucerne police extended their investigations, which started a year ago as a result of a prosecution filed by the economics ministry (SECO).
Usually these publishers catch customers worldwide using forms for entries in Internet address directories. Horrendous fees for multi-year contracts are hidden in finely printed and cleverly worded forms (over 1000 Swiss francs per year), which the mentioned debt collecting companies have been enforcing since the 1990's with massive pressure and threats of court action.
Today Intercable Verlag AG is led by Adrian Wittmer. He is also a founder of the internationally active advertising company WSE Media AG in Meggen. Wittmer refused to comment on the current investigation, and is convinced that the accusations that have been made would be held to be totally without foundation should the matter even go as far a court trial.
Profits in Millions - Interpol around their necks
According to copies of court papers from France in the possession of the Tages Anzeiger (TA) the business practices of Intercable Verlag AG in association with directory publishers from Austria have in the past led to a large scale Interpol investigation. In court documents from between 1979 and 1990 there is mention of ‘fraud’ and ‘deception’. Between 1975 and 1988 Intercable existed only in Hamburg, it then broke camp in the north and emigrated to Zug. Adrian Wittmer denied all knowledge of the cases in France. He stated ‘I have run the company since 1995. I have not heard anything of an Interpol investigation or a prosecution in France more than 20 years ago.’
According to the documents directory publishers were active in ‘at least twelve countries’ and : ‘In the cases from France there was an obvious imitation of the invoices to those of PTT (later to become France Télé- com).’ The files show that the French court found ‘that the directories in many cases, in which the entries should have appeared, either did not appear at all or appeared late or were distributed in districts where there was no longer any interest’. One reads sentences such as ‘Certain telephone directories with the same content were published by different companies.’ And further: The design of the form ‘deceived the recipient as to the nature of the service..’
In those days the companies used official looking invoices for telephone and fax directories to catch customers; today they put the cost in small print and have switched to the Internet. Intercable was one of the many such companies in Hamburg and Vienna with financial investors from Switzerland and Liechtenstein. In France alone between 1981 and 1983 Intercable realised a 1.8 Million Francs in takings.
Not only in France was Intercable known early on to criminal prosecutors. In the protocol of a witness statement dated August 1990 Intercable is mentioned in connection with another Swiss address book company: The judge in charge of investigation in Zug at that time Thomas Hildbrand questioned a person ‘in the matter of Int-Verlag AG’, who printed the books for this company. Answer: There was a publication contract with Intercable. The Int-Verlag according to a press report from ‘24heures’ also came under legal scrutiny as it was mailing similar forms.
Prison, international man hunt
Following an intensive Interpol investigation in 1994 the first two Intercable managing directors from Hamburg were sentenced to two years imprisonment and a fine of 1 Million francs for fraud. Together with them four further directory publishers from Austria were sentenced with imprisonment of up to four years and fine of 2.5 Million francs, some multiple times. Against several of these businessmen an international arrest warrant was issued.
According to written information from the French authorities only the two first Intercable bosses appealed in France, and in 1996 the sentences were quashed on formal grounds.
15 years business in Geneva
One of these managing directors was Dieter Bahnsen. Like Meinolf Lüdenbach he also started his business in Switzerland at the beginning of the 1990's, founding in Geneva an internationally active address book company. According to several independent sources these men knew each other from a common business in the Hamburg years.
In 1991 in Geneva Dieter Bahnsen founded Euco Data SA, and in Spain there was established a twin company Euco Data Espana SA. Again companies were bombarded worldwide with address book forms. The method obviously worked: In 1995 Euco Data showed a gross profit of 800 000 francs.
Apparently the firm cultivated a very special relationship with the chamber of commerce in Geneva, whose members were allowed an entry in 2003 in Euco data's ‘International Trade Information Directory’. Today complaints are received about Euco Data's business practices mainly from Eastern Europe, just like with Intercable.
Mud fight in the Internet
When the Tages Anzeiger published last year that Intercable belonged to the circle of companies that were being investigated by the Lucerne police, the editorial office received a letter from Intercable boss Wittmer. In the letter it was subtly suggested that a person in Great Britain who runs the website www.stopecg.org was a dangerous anarchist who possibly uses weapons. Stopecg has defended itself successfully for years against the mentioned companies and helps small businesses to defend themselves against the debt collecting activities.
Not long thereafter a website appeared in the Internet with the name www.internetvictims.de Motto: ‘Does someone want to destroy your reputation? We can help! Free of charge’. Advertising was obtained for the website in the well known consumer protection magazine Beobachter and in the family magazine Schweizer Illustrierte. On Internetvictims, which, at first sight had nothing to do with Intercable Verlag AG, attempts were made to portray the Briton in a bad light. Amongst other material this included all of the insinuations that the Intercable boss Wittmer had sent in the letter to the Tages Anzeiger.