(DES MOINES, Iowa) A Virginia for-profit telemarketing company agreed Wednesday to stop soliciting Iowans supposedly on behalf of the disabled or disadvantaged 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, Products At Work, LLC, of Norfolk, Virginia, and its owner, Yolanda Monroe, agreed to a permanent ban on soliciting Iowans.
“We demanded a permanent ban because of serious concerns we had about the company targeting older Iowans,” said Miller. “It’s evident to us that telephone solicitors misrepresented how they would use the money they collected,” said Miller. As part of the agreement, the company and its owner deny wrongdoing or liability.
A Consumer Protection Division undercover phone line recorded four Products At Work calls placed to Iowa from 2007-2011.
- In one call recorded in 2007, a company representative selling freezer bags and Saran Wrap for $35 apiece falsely claimed he was a “volunteer” and that “100 percent” of the proceeds the company collects goes to “paraplegics and amputee victims.” In fact, none of the company workers meets that description.
- In a call recorded in May of 2011, another company representative falsely claimed to be a “volunteer.” In trying to sell a package of light bulbs or zip lock freezer bags for $58.95 apiece, the telemarketer also made the questionable claims that her fellow workers “suffer illnesses of war” and “don’t get checks from the government.”
Based on the recorded calls, the Consumer Protection Division (CPD) issued a Civil Investigative Demand to Products At Work, LLC, and Monroe. The CPD demanded and received a list of Iowa consumers who purchased items from the company.
The CPD reviewed the Products At Work’s sales records and determined that the company repeatedly places sales calls, sometimes only weeks apart, to several older Iowans. Time after time these Iowans purchased items like light bulbs, freezer bags, wind chimes and cookies. Records show a 71-year-old Floyd County woman with Alzheimer’s disease placed at least 13 orders within two years, including five separate orders for wind chimes, spending more than a thousand dollars. An 83-year-old Keokuk County woman placed 12 separate orders, totaling nearly $800, within 15 months. And a 66-year-old Clayton County woman placed ten orders for nearly $500 in just over a year and-a-half.
“We know that, in several cases, older Iowans were confused, yet still generous at heart, and they kept placing orders for overpriced items because of aggressive and deceptive telemarketing practices,” Miller said.
The agreement requires the company to make a $5,000 payment to the state. The Consumer Protection Division will review the company’s sales records and refund $4,000 to Iowans who made multiple purchases. The remaining $1,000 will go to the state’s elderly victim fund.
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 and fire fighters, but some marginal operations claim connections with such groups yet provide them with very little support. Contact your local sheriff or police or fire department or veterans’ organization to check out claims that a donation “will be used locally.”
- 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.
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.