WATERTOWN — “Don’t feed the bear” is what 10th Mountain Division soldiers were told when they first started their assignments on Fort Drum. It’s a warning about a marketing tactic used by a chain jewelry store that had locations across the country, including one here in Watertown, that decimated the financial stability of thousands of soldiers.
In a press conference at the Dulles State Office Building in Watertown on Wednesday, state Attorney General Letitia A. James, her colleagues in the local branch of the Attorney Generals office, a former Fort Drum financial literacy teacher and a local veterans advocate detailed how Harris Jewelry defrauded servicemembers with unfair, illegal and deceptive financing programs, presented as credit-improvement tools.
The company, based out of Ronkonkoma, Suffolk County, has been sued by the Attorney General of New York and several other states over its practices, and on Wednesday the Attorney General announced they’d reached an agreement, not yet approved, to recover more than $34.2 million for more than 46,000 soldiers and veterans targeted by Harris’ scheme.
“It all started with an innocent teddy bear,” Ms. James said.
Harris staff would advertise with stuffed bears, dressed in fatigues, outside storefronts in towns near military installations. One Harris location was open from 2014 to April 2021 in Watertown’s Salmon Run Mall, when it shut down all storefronts because of the pandemic. The company continued to operate online until December of 2021, when it stopped running its finance program as part of an agreement with the Attorney General. The Attorney General investigation into the stores began in 2017, with the first lawsuits filed in 2018.
The Harris salespeople would lure servicemembers into the store, promising that the entire company was dedicated to serving the needs of the men and women in uniform. With Operation Teddybear, servicemembers were told a portion, or sometimes all, of the proceeds from their purchase would go to a military-affiliated charity that sends care packages to deployed troops.
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