Company misled Iowans about blind and disabled fundraising claims
(DES MOINES, Iowa) An Alabama for-profit telemarketing company agreed Thursday to halt telephone calls to Iowans supposedly on behalf of the blind and disabled after Attorney General Tom Miller alleged that the company violated Iowa’s Consumer Fraud Act.
In a formal agreement called an Assurance of Voluntary Compliance, Lifeline Industries, Inc. of Mobile, Alabama, and its president and owner, J. Michael Zampieri, III, agreed to a permanent ban on soliciting Iowans. As part of the agreement, the company and Zampieri deny wrongdoing or liability.
“A permanent ban is appropriate because Lifeline showed a pattern of misconduct in its telephone appeals, misleading Iowans into making sympathy purchases of overpriced household goods in the name of the blind and disabled,” said Miller. “Our undercover phone line caught their telemarketers grossly exaggerating the benefit to disadvantaged workers, as well as other important aspects of this for-profit operation.”
A Consumer Protection Division undercover phone line recorded five Lifeline calls placed to Iowa from 2009-2011:
- In one call recorded in February of 2009, a company representative selling trash bags, light bulbs and bath sets falsely claimed that Lifeline “only hires the blind and visually impaired.” In fact, only a small minority of employees are blind or disabled – currently, of more than 40 employees, only one is blind and one is disabled. The caller also acknowledged that in making solicitation calls “we deal with a lot of elderly people.”
- In another call recorded in July of 2009, a Lifeline telemarketer falsely claimed to be calling “for the blind people in Iowa.” The telemarketer also falsely claimed that calls were made only once a year, and that the operation was located in Des Moines. In fact, blind people in Iowa received no benefit; solicitation calls were repeated every 21 weeks; and Lifeline has never had any locations in Iowa.
- In another call recorded in November of 2011, a man calling for Lifeline falsely told an Iowa woman that she had given a “donation” of $67 the previous year, and urged her to do it again. He also falsely claimed that 100% of the money goes to employees who are “totally blind and totally handicapped,” and that Lifeline had received a governor’s award for its outstanding work. A company director recently acknowledged that there was no such award.
“Iowans are generous, and that’s a good thing,” Miller said. “But it’s also good to be wary of dubious operations that take advantage of your generosity in order to line their own pockets.”
Miller said that if anyone believes they were misled by telemarketers into making a purchase from Lifeline, they should contact the Consumer Protection Division.
Older Iowans are frequent targets of deceptive telemarketers
- Don’t be fooled by a sympathetic name. Some operations use names that promise more than they deliver. Many causes clearly deserve generous public support, including veterans, law enforcement, fire fighters, and disabled workers, but some marginal operations claim connections with such groups yet provide them with very little support. Don’t be pressured into helping out until you have checked out a worthy-sounding organization.
- Ask questions. Be wary of claims that the caller is a charity worker or volunteer, that most of your donation goes to the cause, or that your donation will be used locally.
- Ask phone solicitors to send written information. Check out the charity before you make a decision. Be suspicious if they insist on a pledge before they’ll send you information. Check them out at the national Better Business Bureau “wise giving” site – www.give.org.
- Don't give your credit card or checking account numbers over the phone to someone you don't know.
- Give wisely! Giving to a known charity you’re confident about is often the best option.
The National Consumers League warning signs that an older person may be a fraud victim:
If an older person is:
- receiving lots of junk mail for contests, “free” trips, prizes and sweepstakes
- getting frequent calls from strangers offering valuable awards or great moneymaking opportunities, or asking for charitable contributions
- making repeated and/or large payments to out-of-state companies
- having payments picked up by private courier services
- receiving lots of cheap items such as costume jewelry, small appliances, pens and pencils, beauty products, water filters, etc.
- getting calls from organizations offering to recover money that they have paid to telemarketers, for a fee,
…then he or she may be a target of fraud.
Advice from the FBI
Seniors who are isolated and have little contact with family, friends, caseworkers, and other concerned parties may be at increased risk of being victimized by fraudulent businesses. Decreasing this isolation through police welfare checks, neighborhood watches, and in-person outreach efforts can help to ensure that elders are aware of available resources they can turn to with questions and concerns about potential scammers. Further, ongoing contact with family members can provide the means to monitor an elder’s financial matters.
There are many good charities soliciting contributions in Iowa, and the Attorney General's Office is eager to uphold the integrity of our system of giving by stopping fundraising abuses. If you think you may have been cheated by a fundraising scheme, write to the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division, Hoover Building, Des Moines, Iowa 50319. Call 515-281-5926, or 888-777-4590 toll free. The website is: www.IowaAttorneyGeneral.gov.