Jacob Helmuth says at an early age, his single working mother taught him the value of service and sacrifice. In 2013, he left home in Fort Wayne, North Carolina to serve his country as a U.S. Marine. He is now stationed at Camp Pendleton.
Helmuth told NBC 7 Investigates on his first day off, he visited Downtown San Diego. Although he was with friends, he was thinking of family.
“My dad left when I was nine or 10. From that point on [my mom] raised me all by herself,” he said. “I wanted to do something nice for her for once.”
That day, Helmuth bought what’s called the Mother’s Medal of Honor from Romano’s Jewelers. The sales associate sold the necklace and a watch to him for more than $2,300. That price raised a red flag for Helmuth’s mother, so she called NBC 7 Investigates.
We had Helmuth send us documents of the purchase. They showed he signed up for a payment plan. Helmuth said he realizes now that was a big mistake.
“They didn’t show me the percentage rate,” he recalled.
Helmuth’s monthly statement shows an interest rate of 29.9 percent. It also shows a minimum payment of $75. That payment does not cover the cost of the $80 interest fee.
Helmuth said he left the jewelry store with the necklace, a watch and a few papers – none of which were copies of his finance agreement with the company.
Navy sailor Antoine Graham, 19, told NBC 7 Investigates said the same thing happened to him.
“The only paperwork is what you’re holding in your hand right there,” said Graham as he pointed to a piece of paper he handed to NBC 7 Investigates Candice Nguyen. The paper did not show a price or any details of his payment plan.
According to a letter from A. David Youssefyeh, an attorney for Romano’s, “it is Romano’s policy to give copies of all documents to all of its customers.” Youssefyeh said both Helmuth and Graham signed “Credit Agreement and Disclosures” which indicate the 29.9 percent annual interest rate.
The sailors said they did not walk out the door with this paperwork. They also told NBC 7 Investigates the interest charges were not clearly explained to them.
In the letter to NBC 7 Investigates, Youssefyeh provided more details about the specifics of Helmuth’s payment plan.
“His monthly payment charge was $150.00 (payable twice per month in installments of $75), with interest charges starting at $54.79 and declining,” he said.
Consumer Protection Attorney Tim Blood reviewed some of the financial documents military members received from Romano’s and said, “Based on the documents I’ve seen, there are some very big omissions in what should be provided that just aren’t there and that’s troubling.”
He went on to say disclosure laws require businesses providing credit to explain finance agreements clearly and conspicuously in writing, in a form that the consumer may keep.
Oscar Castillo is a former Romano’s employee. He’s one of several people who reached out to NBC 7 Investigates to report wrongdoing by the company. Castillo worked for the business’ Gaslamp and National City locations for two years until, he said, he was laid off in June.
“We weren’t even financing [military members]. We were just there to take their money,” he said. “They are targeting military. They would only target the younger ones. The ones who were fresh in, the Marines, the Navy.”
In the November 14 letter to NBC 7 Investigates, Youssefyeh said, Castillo was fired for “subpar work performance.”
Castillo, Graham and Helmuth are far from the only ones speaking out. NBC 7 Investigates received similar calls and emails from military members and their families from Northern California, Indiana, Illinois, Texas and North Carolina.
During the weeks of our investigation, numerous requests for an interview with the business owner, Randy Abalkhad, were declined. Instead, the company had us talk to Jorge Mirlas, Romano’s Jewelers’ marketing manager for San Diego County.
“Here at this [Horton Plaza] location, I can assure you I personally am involved in the training process to make sure people understand everything A to Z,” Mirlas told us.
Mirlas was unable to respond to specific concerns, like customers saying they did not receive copies of their purchase agreements or claims that sales associates did not clearly explain payment plans.
However, later in the interview he acknowledged, “Since it’s come to our attention, we’ve had new policies and procedures in place to ensure customer satisfaction.”
NBC 7 Investigates Candice Nguyen followed up by asking, “It sounds like you were made aware of some of these issues before this interview.”
“It came to my attention before this interview,” responded Mirlas. “Correct. Everything you’ve mentioned.”
With Romano’s Jewelers’ no return, no refund policy, Helmuth said he continues to feel financially stuck.
Attorney Blood advises people who find themselves in similar situations to refrain from stopping payments.
He suggests dealing with the issue while continuing payments to ensure you have a strong case against the business. He also says if anyone enters into any financial agreement, make sure you fully understand the contract and obtain a copy of it before leaving the store.
After the NBC 7 Investigates story aired, Navy Spokesman Brian O’Rourke said he sent the news story to his command master chief, who then sent it to every command master chief in the San Diego area. They, in turn, have warned all sailors under them.
“You’re story shined a light on a problem we weren’t aware existed, “ said O’Rourke. “This is what we need. These kinds of stories we need to be telling our sailors about: warnings.”
In the November letter, Youssefyeh said, Romano’s “would be happy to open our files to any Navy inspector to review our dealings with its personnel and confirm all the documentation and information is in order.”
Editor’s note: The story below has been updated to reflect responses received from Romano’s Jewelers on Nov. 14, 2014.