Hicksville modeling agency employees charged in scam

Jennifer Diaz-Domenech, 31, of Brooklyn, Michelle Alperin-Smith, 42, of Nesconset and Jennifer Santiago, 26, of Jamaica, Queens.

September 18, 2013 3:11:25 PM PDT
Three employees of a Hicksville-based modeling agency have been charged with defrauding dozens of clients out of more than $250,000.

Authorities say they overcharged for photo shoots, misrepresented the terms of contracts, and promised clients lucrative roles and modeling jobs for their children that never existed.

An arrest warrant has been issued for the business's CEO, James Muniz, 44, of Roslyn.

Authorities have arrested Jennifer Santiago, 26, of Jamaica, Queens, Jennifer Diaz-Domenech, 31, of Brooklyn, and Michelle Alperin-Smith, 42, of Nesconset on grand larceny and related charges.

The arrests are the result of a five-month joint investigation between the Nassau County District Attorney's Office and New York State Attorney General's Office.

"Hundreds of families were led to believe that their child was the next big thing, only to learn that they were just the next in line to be scammed," Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice said.

Rice and New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said that since 2010, James Muniz was president and CEO of the Model Talent Development Center (MTD) and New Faces Development Center, Inc. (New Faces) in Hicksville. Between then and New Faces/MTD's closing in November 2012, Muniz had associates acting as talent scouts in public places and the Queens Center and Roosevelt Field shopping malls, approaching young teenagers and people with small children. The scouts claimed that the child had been chosen because they had a "look" that made them likely to succeed in modeling or acting.

According to authorities, victims were falsely promised that they would incur no costs for services, were misled into believing that only a small percentage of those approached, and subsequently interviewed by New Faces/MTD, were actually offered an opportunity with the company. In truth, New Faces/MTD was not selective at all in choosing its clients, but signed up virtually anyone who would pay.

Victims were subjected to high pressure sales tactics, and were falsely told that their children would lose imminent high-paying employment opportunities if they did not immediately sign up for contracts costing anywhere from $550 to $3,000, authorities said.

After paying hundreds, and sometimes thousands of dollars, consumers would often go months without even a telephone call from New Faces/MTD, let alone a job as an actor or model.

In other cases, investigators say clients were told that their children had secured multi-year contracts with retailers such as Macy's, Toys R' Us, Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, The Children's Place, Target, and JC Penney, but this required them to enter into additional agreements or extend their current contract with New Faces/MTD.

Authorities said many were told that they had to accept the agreements or extensions immediately or the alleged modeling job would go to someone else. The payments, usually by credit or debit card for thousands of dollars, had to be made within 24-48 hours.

Investigators said New Faces/MTD had no arrangements or agreements with any of the major retailers they mentioned to clients.

It's not the first time the company has faced accusations. The Attorney General's Office had initiated civil proceedings against the company in 2006, when it was known as New Faces and owned by Muniz's ex-wife. As a result of those proceedings, New Faces agreed to cease its deceptive business practices and paid more than $250,000 in restitution.

The Attorney General opened a new investigation in December 2012 against Muniz and MTD after receiving numerous complaints. Complaints from clients and MTD employees spurred the Nassau County District Attorney's investigation into Muniz and MTD in April 2013. The two investigations merged shortly thereafter.

The investigation into New Faces/MTD is ongoing, and anyone who thinks they may have been similarly victimized should contact DA Rice's Complaints Unit at (516) 571-3505 or the Attorney General's Office at (516) 248-3301.