(Editor's note: The Federal Trade Commission and the Florida Attorney General on Nov. 13, 2014 announced they shut down an Orlando, Fla.-based operation that used robocalls to fraudulently pitch medical alert devices to older consumers.
The first robocall I received from “American Senior Benefits Program,” 10 days ago, left me annoyed but curious. Why was a company that sold a personal emergency response system for seniors calling my home? After all, my husband and I had put our phone number on the do-not-call list. And how did the marketer know our household included "seniors"?
Four days later, I received a second, identical robocall that interrupted my lunch. With that, my longtime consumer-reporter instincts kicked in: Something seemed a little fishy.
Here’s the sales pitch I hastily scribbled down:
If you’re a senior citizen, or know somebody that is a senior citizen that may be in need, please listen closely to the following information. Each year there has been a significant rise in the number of senior citizens suffering death and serious life-threatening injuries from a delay in response times from medical emergencies, fires, burglaries or even just a simple fall. The American Heart Association and American Diabetic Association are urging all seniors to get a personal life-saving emergency medical alert system for their home. For the first time, the American Senior Benefits Program is providing senior citizens with this life-saving emergency medical alert equipment at no charge to seniors….
When I got the first call, I was directed to punch “1” if I wished to be connected to a “live certified emergency medical technician.” I did just that. Then a woman came on the line, responding with the word “verification” and identifying herself as Jessica.
I asked Jessica what the catch was, since I doubted a telemarketer would be calling to sell me something that was “free.” She said the equipment for the personal-emergency response system — which she called PERS — was free, even though it was worth $290. But I would be billed a monthly $29.99 maintenance fee. At that point I hung up.
I then dashed off to my computer to search for a company called American Senior Benefits Program. I quickly found one — as well as this note, in bold red letters, at the top of its Web page:
It has been brought to our attention that many consumers are getting automated phone calls from "American Senior Benefits Program." We are NOT this company. We are working with several state and federal agencies to get these calls stopped as quickly as possible.
The American Senior Benefits Program that turned up in my computer search is an insurance marketer based in Overland Park, Kan., that sells health and life insurance to seniors. I spoke to its president, Jim Sweeney, who told me that since mid-March his company has received dozens of irate phone calls and emails from people objecting to these robocalls. Many were complaining about violation of the do-not-call list. Some suspected a "type of fraud situation,” Sweeney said, adding, “I believe it is, too.”
Fraud experts I interviewed saw a number of red flags you should know about if you receive similar calls. After I read my transcript of the robocall's sales pitch to John Breyault, director of the National Consumers League Fraud Center
, he said: “It has all the hallmarks of a scam.”
The American Senior Benefits Program telemarketing calls did four things you should watch out for:
Trying to create a sense of panic. In this case, the company used an image of a senior incapacitated at home without a quick way to get emergency help. “Be very suspicious about calls that prey on your fears to get you to buy something,” Breyault said.
Promising something for free that really isn’t. Don't ever expect to get a free lunch; there’s always a catch.
Implying an endorsement from a well-known organization. I checked with the American Heart Association. I was told it does not endorse or recommend any personal emergency medical alert systems and has no record of a national relationship with the American Senior Benefits Program. Another tip-off: The robocall cited the American Diabetic Association, but the well-known charity’s actual name is the American Diabetes Association.
Connecting consumers to “verification.” The calls would have been more legitimate if I had been forwarded to a “live certified emergency medical technician,” Breyault said.
In addition, the company had no website or mailing address that I could find online. Breyault told me that the number on my caller ID was from a cell phone, and there was no clear indication of whose number it was. All legitimate businesses should have a mailing address and landline telephone.
What to Do If You Get A Call
What should you do if you receive a suspicious telemarketing call?
Whether or not the call seems suspicious, never disclose any personal information to telemarketers you don’t know. If you’re interested in what’s being pitched, contact the company directly — not one of its telemarketers — to make sure it’s the real deal.
Before You Buy a Personal Emergency Service
The personal emergency response system business is fast growing and highly competitive; you may have even seen PERS commercials on late-night TV. If you're interested in buying this kind of service for yourself or your parents, be sure to ask these key questions:
- Who answers the calls for help?
- Is a response center open 24/7?
- What kind of training does the response center staff have?
- What’s the average response time after an alert?
By Caroline Mayer
Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post, covering such issues as product safety, scams, and credit cards. Mayer has received several awards, including the Betty Furness Consumer Media Service Award. She has written for Consumer Reports, CBS MoneyWatch, Ladies Home Journal, Kaiser Health News and others. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer
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