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Brace Yourself?

I’m trying to solve a mystery: how a telemedicine outfit called QuivvyTech in Boca Raton, Florida, got Isabelle Kincaid’s phone number. All she knows, she says, is that someone from the company called in October of last year and asked if she had pain in any of her joints. She said she did—in her back, both wrists, left ankle, and right shoulder. Would she be interested in trying some braces at no charge? She said yes again, and gave the caller her Medicare number and address in Head Waters, Virginia.

Soon, three boxes of braces arrived—one from a company called Complete Health Supply in Boca Raton, and two from Med Braces and Supplies in Port Saint Lucie. Kincaid believed she was receiving the braces on a trial basis, gave them a test drive, and decided to send them back. Complete Health Supply had included a postage paid mailing label, so those braces were easy to return. Not so with the boxes from Med Braces and Supplies, which included no information on how to return them.

Kincaid next received a bill from QuivvyTech for a $25 “telehealth consultation.” No doctor’s name was listed on the bill; only the date, time, and, under “Procedure Code,” a list of pain in her back, left ankle, left wrist, right shoulder, and right wrist. Kincaid smelled a rat, and called Medicare—and was astounded to learn that Medicare had paid the two companies a total of $3,535 for the “free trial” braces. On hearing Kincaid’s side of the story, the employee told her to return the braces and stated that Medicare would investigate the claim. Kincaid later received a new Medicare card and number, and when QuivvyTech pressured her for the $25 (and her new Medicare number), she contacted me on December 18.

I called QuivvyTech on December 23 and spoke with someone who declined to give her name. When I said I was a reporter and wanted to discuss Kincaid’s complaint, she ended the call abruptly. I got a call later that day from someone else at the company who said he was going to connect me with “Frank,” who, with some difficulty, was patched through. I began by asking Frank what his position was at QuivvyTech, and after a pause he said, “An administrator.”

“That’s your title—‘an administrator’?”

“Yes.” Hmm.

Frank was quick to take offense at my suggestion that Kincaid had a legitimate complaint. He had listened to a recording of the October phone call, he said, and claimed that Kincaid had initiated the call and said she wanted to speak to a doctor. He also said she’d been told she’d be charged $25—but, when I pressed the issue, said that “a block” of recent calls hadn’t included the disclosure. If he really had a recording on which the disclosure had been made, though, why would he admit that maybe it hadn’t?

As for how Kincaid would have heard of QuivvyTech, he said that the company markets its services on TV and radio. He was also quick to quash any suggestion that Kincaid might have been hoodwinked into receiving the braces, declaring, “We don’t recommend braces.” Which means, I suppose, that Kincaid not only called QuivvyTech but also asked some nameless M.D. to send her a veritable body cast’s worth of braces.

QuivvyTech, he said, was just “a small outsourcing company.” That doesn’t jibe with a statement by the company’s Director of Business Development, RaeAnn Weatherwax, on her LinkedIn page: “Quivvy Tech is currently hiring Emergency Medicine, Family Medicine, General Medicine, Internal Medicine, Orthopedic, and General Surgery Physicians in select states.”

I told Frank that it would cost Kincaid roughly $16 each to return the two boxes, and he said he would call her himself, reimburse her for the postage, and drop the $25 charge. Kincaid called later to say that he had followed up on his promises.

Frank refused to give me his email address, but did, after some prompting, tell me his last name: Michelin. Then things really got interesting. Turns out Michelin was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison for securities fraud in 2006 and ordered to pay $11 million in restitution to clients of his former securities brokerage, LH Ross, which the National Association of Securities Dealers had closed down. He was also permanently banned from selling securities and prohibited from working in telemarketing or direct sales during his three years of supervised probation.

Once he was free of supervision, however, he resumed his sales career—just not in securities. On his website,, he touts his extensive experience since 2010 in the durable medical equipment field. That’s “durable” as in “braces.” He also offers a plethora of other services: Financial/Consulting, General Corporate Consulting, and Legal/Contractual Review, which are interesting pursuits given his track record with legal and financial documents. Nowhere on the website does he mention any connection with QuivvyTech.

I emailed a spokesperson at the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), who responded by saying that she couldn’t comment on whether QuivvyTech is under investigation. She did, however, state that “CMS is aware of ongoing fraudulent activity related to medical braces and we are working with our contractors, law enforcement, and other stakeholders to address the matter where appropriate.”

Just before press time, I called QuivvyTech again and asked to speak with Michelin. The employee who answered the phone, Ben, was initially friendly, and when I asked what Michelin’s position is with the company, he said, “He’s the top dog.” When I said that I wanted to talk with Michelin about his criminal record, Ben was not pleased. Eventually he said he’d connect me with Michelin, but I then got cut off.

I called back and got a different employee, whose attempt to connect me with Michelin  also failed. When I asked whether it was true that he’s the “top dog,” she said, “Yes—he’s the owner.” Sounds like Michelin’s ascent from “an administrator” to “the owner” was rapid indeed.

Things took another turn when Kincaid called a few hours later to say that Michelin had just called her, and she was worried. She went on to say that she’d received her Medicare statement, which listed the details of the seven claims submitted by Complete Health and Med Braces and Supplies. The dates on the claims from Complete Health were October 8 and 15—yet QuivvyTech’s “consultation” didn’t happen until October 16.

Furthermore, the same doctor, Oronde A. Smith, was listed as the provider on each of the seven claims. A quick consultation with Google revealed that Smith is an Emergency Medicine physician at the Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and I began trying to contact him. So far, my attempts—which include speaking with a medical center administrator and leaving a message in his department—have failed. Although it appears that Smith might have been somehow affiliated with QuivvyTech when the braces were ordered in October, that doesn’t mean he actually placed the orders or knew that his name was used to place them.

There’s also no reason to believe that the medical supply companies behaved unethically. I haven’t been able to speak to anyone from Med Braces and Supplies, but when Complete Health received the braces, they notified Medicare and returned the $2,773 they’d been paid.

As for QuivvyTech and Michelin, worrisome details keep emerging. I plan to continue investigating, and will publish my findings when I learn more.


I Could Have Been a Millionaire

Recently, I wrote about a bizarre letter Terry Jackson received from an alleged attorney in Toronto named Robert Wilson. He was writing to inform Jackson that he stood to gain millions of dollars from an unclaimed estate. Seems one of Wilson’s clients, an engineer named Anthony Jackson, died in a car wreck in 2012 without leaving a will. And since Wilson had control of the dead man’s $7.5 million estate, which was now considered abandoned property, he could simply list Jackson as the closest relative. Wilson would only have to file a few documents, and hey presto! They could split the dough—or, more precisely, they could split 90% of it, since Wilson intended to give 10% to charity.

He went on to explain that the proposition was “100% risk free” and that he had “all necessary documentation to expedite the process in a highly professional and confidential manner.” Jackson rolled his eyes and passed the letter on to me. I wrote my column and ended by saying that I’d emailed Wilson, posing as Jackson’s representative, to relay his interest. There was no reply, however, and I assumed he’d moved on.

Imagine my delight, then, when Wilson emailed me on Dec. 4—and my astonishment when I learned that the dead engineer’s last name was actually Nordin. Now I could be a millionaire! As soon as Wilson had my full name, address, phone number, marital status, and age, he wrote, he would “proceed to the court to swear affidavits.”

I sent the information he requested, and pictured his glee when he learned that I’m a 68-year-old single woman—every scam artist’s dream. Things moved swiftly after that; he responded with copies of his law license, his passport, and Anthony Nordin’s death certificate. Two days later I received two “property and fund release agreement forms,” along with the details I’d need to fill them in, which he would then submit to Sun Life Financial in Toronto in his capacity as my legal representative. “I’m 100% optimistic,” he declared, “that the desired success we both thirst for in this transaction is very imminent.”

I decided it was time for a monkey wrench. “Robert,” I wrote, “I’m confused—how did the dead man’s last name change from Jackson to Nordin?” He was quick with his answer: “My deceased client Mr. Anthony Nordin J. (Engineer) used his initial in all his documents including his company registration here in Canada, and as such it’s easy for me as his personal attorney to consider and work with whoever his/her last name starts with ‘J’ or whoever that bears ‘Nordin’ in his/her official document which will serve as a nexus to establish a lawful prove according to the Canadian statutory law.”

I decided to toss another wrench. “Robert,” I replied, “I hope you understand that I would have to tell the insurance company that I’m not a relation.” He fired back that doing so would “jeopardize the success of this policy claim”—and furthermore, if I wasn’t willing to partner with him, it would be “prudent” of me to let him know so that he could find the right person “who will adhere sgrictly to my humble and sincere directives.”

I wrote back to ask whether he worried he’d get caught. Outrage ensued: “I have been in this legal field for decades with a vast legal experience/knowledge, and my reputation is very firm without an atom of stain attached to it.” He ended on a more conciliatory note: “Let trust be our watch word as we tread along with this transaction that the nature has brought us together.”

I relented and sent the forms, and in fast order I received a letter from “Veronica Dion” at Sun Life, whose written English skills were similar to Wilson’s. She had good news and bad news. The good news was that my claim had been approved for payment via a cashier’s check from Woodbridge Credit Union of Canada. The bad news was that the estate owed Sun Life $78,000 for an administrative fee, a monthly premium, and the underwriter’s cost.

I decided to consult my legal representative in Canada. “Robert,” I wrote, “I have two concerns.” First, would Sun Life deduct the $78,000 from the total and send me the rest? And second, “The letter is written in extremely poor English—no Canadian insurance company would write such a letter.” In a follow-up email, I said that I couldn’t find a Woodbridge Credit Union online. That, apparently, was the last straw. Robert did not reply.

I waited six days, then emailed to say that I hadn’t heard from the credit union, which was supposed to contact me. He made me wait 24 hours, and when he deigned to reply he was in high dudgeon: “I paused every communication with you till further notice due to what I perceived in your previous email as unserious and very insulting.” Given his professional standing, he wrote, “I can’t indulge/associate my humble self with any form of illicit transaction. … I choosed to partner with you in this transaction due to the little similarity in name which you share with my deceased client.”

He was willing, however, to overlook my behavior; I would just need to send $14,700 to settle the “outstanding debt obligations,” which this time were to the credit union. I wrote back to say that I didn’t have $14,700, and that was the kiss of death for our partnership.

A few days later I sent one last email. The subject line read, “I’m actually a reporter,” and in my message I promised to send him a link to the column I’d be writing. “You’re engaging in fraud,” I wrote, “and I hope you’re ashamed of yourself.”

But Robert, we know, is not.


The bill’s in the mail . . . or is it?

One Saturday last April, Rick Moore went to one of two emergency services centers in Charlottesville owned by Martha Jefferson Hospital—which, in turn, is one of 14 hospitals in Virginia and North Carolina owned by Sentara. He was treated and released, and after his insurance company paid its part, he received a bill for $869 in late May or early June.

“That was more than I could pay at the time,” he said, so he called and arranged to pay $75 a month. Based on an earlier experience with a different hospital, he hoped that Sentara would send monthly notices by email, but when he asked whether that was possible he was told that Sentara would only send notices by mail—which, he claims, didn’t happen.

Periodically, he says, he would wonder why he wasn’t getting any bills, but “lost track of things.” On September 23, he finally got his bill—but not for $75. Under the headline “PAYMENT PLAN CANCELLED NOTICE,” he read that since Sentara hadn’t received any payments, the balance of $869 was now due.

He called again, explained that he’d been told to expect monthly bills, and says the Sentara employee volunteered that “several people” had had the same problem. His first $75 payment, she said, would now be due on November 30, and he would receive bills two weeks before the due date. When he still hadn’t received a bill by November 23, he called yet again. This time, he was told that his bill had been printed and sent November 11. “All I want to do is pay them,” he told me when we talked the same day.

I called Jenn Downs, the Director of Marketing and Communication at Sentara Martha Jefferson, who promised to speak to the company’s billing department. On November 27, I received the following statement by email: “We verified with the vendor who prints and mails our statements that the payment plan reminders were mailed. Additionally, we were happy to reset the payment plan when the consumer brought their concern to our attention. At Sentara Martha Jefferson, we will always work with patients on an individual basis. We encourage anyone with questions about their bills or financial challenges to call so we can work through the issue together.”

On November 28, Moore returned from a two-day vacation and found his bill. It was from Raleigh, NC, and dated November 11—but would have arrived on the 26th or 27th. Considering that the due date was November 30th, the two-week notice was now more like a two-day notice.

Going forward, I’ve asked Moore to let me know when his bills arrive until he’s confident the system is working as promised. I also hope that Sentara will test their system for mailing bills to determine whether they’re being received within a reasonable time frame.

According to Becker’s Hospital Review, in April 2017 Sentara acknowledged that it had sent “incorrect billing information” to “more than 16,300 patients.” Specifically, “some patients’ billing information was mistakenly placed on other patients’ statements.”

“Our IT division is working with our print and mail vendor to prevent any such errors in the future,” Sentara declared. Based on Moore’s account, they might need to work a little harder.


Saved by the Asterisk

It’s a good thing Ronnie Buzzard just happened to notice the asterisk on his June electricity bill; if he hadn’t, he and his wife would soon be wondering why they had no power. But he did—and when he looked closer, he realized that because they were delinquent in their payment, their electricity would be turned off on June 15 if they didn’t pay up. How much did they owe? you’re wondering. A whopping thirty-four cents.

The Buzzards, who live in Mountain Grove, VA, receive two bills every month (they also have an apartment on their property). His wife adds them together and writes a check for the total, so she likely transposed two numbers. Buzzard called the electrical cooperative they’re members of, BARC, and left a message. No one, he says, called back. They paid their bill and the 15th came and went. Still, BARC’s heavy-handed approach didn’t sit right, and Buzzard called me on July 29.

BARC’s website explains that because it’s a member-owned public utility, it “differs from a publicly owned utility in that the member-owner of a cooperative has a voice in leadership through voting rights and is able to attend the annual meeting. Member-owners are also given a share of any profits or margins generated by the electric cooperative, otherwise known as Capital Credits.”

Buzzard pointed out that BARC is quick to remind members (I’m one, too) of how important we are and how much they value our participation. But then, he said, they turn around and “act like a dictator.” Why didn’t anyone call to warn them of the deadline, he wondered, rather than just assuming he’d notice an asterisked note on a bill?

I called BARC on August 1 and spoke with April Tuning, Manager of Customer Services. Problems such as the Buzzards’ experience were “strictly software driven,” she said, and won’t happen in the future: As of this month, the amount required to trigger a cut-off warning is much higher. (I agreed not to mention the specific amount, in case anyone took that as a license to slide.)

Also, any member in danger of losing power will receive a phone call; before, members were only called the first time they were delinquent. The Buzzards have been members for 42 years, and he claims they’ve never missed a payment. But what if, at some point in the past, they were late or accidentally underpaid? Wouldn’t they still deserve a phone call, given the possible consequences of losing their electricity?

Tish Blackwell, BARC’s Communications Specialist, called the Buzzards to express regret and assure him that the policy has changed. For his part, though, Buzzard’s adopting a wait-and-see attitude, saying, “You can’t trust anyone these days.” I’m taking a more optimistic view of the situation, though, and hope that BARC doesn’t let us down.


Have You Checked Your Passwords Lately?

Cinemark’s Movie Club makes it easy for customers to reserve movie tickets online and pay less at the concession stand. Like many websites that involve money, however, there are also potential drawbacks. I learned about one such from my friend Rita Goldberger.

Goldberger and her partner, who live in San Francisco, are Movie Club members. For $9.99 a month, they get a free 2D ticket every month and 20% off at the concession stand every visit, and pay no fees when they reserve online. Customers can easily buy their tickets and popcorn by purchasing a Cinemark gift card, registering it on the company’s website, and linking it to their Movie Club account. After that, the card can be reloaded anytime. Goldberger links two gift cards, one for herself and one for her partner, to her Movie Club account, which in turn is linked to her email. She keeps track of the balances on Cinemark’s website and adds money when they get low.

Earlier this year, Goldberger lost her (physical) Movie Club card and Cinemark cancelled it, issued a new card, and transferred the gift card balances to the new card. So when she realized in early June that someone had hacked into her Movie Club account online, gained access to the linked gift cards, and stolen $283.90, she notified Cinemark’s customer support center and assumed she’d be reimbursed for the loss.

Not so fast: In a June 14 email, Cinemark refused to reimburse Goldberger for what they termed “fraudulently used funds.” In response, to support her claim that the account had been accessed via Cinemark’s website, Goldberger asked to see the details of recent transactions for both cards, since that information can’t be accessed online.

Four transactions stood out. On May 18, someone spent $140.07 at a Cinemark in Cincinnati (2,380 miles from San Francisco), and on May 27 someone with more restraint spent $43.83 at a Cinemark in Yuba City (133 miles from San Francisco). Two more fraudulent transactions, which took place in San Francisco, brought the total to $283.90. It seemed obvious that the thieves had hacked into Goldberger’s email on the Movie Club website, linked her gift cards to a different email, and proceeded to see a lot of movies while eating a boatload of popcorn.

Nevertheless, Cinemark still refused to reimburse Goldberger, so she contacted me on June 14. I called Cinemark’s headquarters in Plano, Texas, on June 17 and left a voice mail for the media relations person, but didn’t get a reply. The next day, however, Goldberger received an email from Cinemark’s support center that struck a friendlier tone. After apologizing for the “delay,” the writer said that the gift card disputes were being transferred to Cinemark’s Loss Prevention department. On June 21, Cinemark notified Goldberger that they were refunding the entire $283.90.

The good news came with some good advice: Always use a strong password. One reason Goldberger’s account was relatively easy to hack was a password she admits wouldn’t be hard to crack. She’s changed it now, and expects no more problems down the road.

Bad optics: Optometrist revealed as deadbeat

Lee Elliott liked her long-time optometrist so much that she was willing to drive four hours each way to see him. The doctor, whose office is in Northern Virginia, takes a holistic approach to vision care and pays a lot of attention, for instance, to nutrition. So when Elliott saw him on February 18 she was disappointed to hear that he was in the process of retiring—and surprised when he volunteered that he was in debt and couldn’t afford to pay the rent.

In hindsight, Elliott would have asked for her new prescription, wished him well, and gone elsewhere to get her new glasses. But she’d never had reason to complain before, so she paid $200 for the exam and $400 for the glasses, which she expected to receive in a couple of weeks. Her driver’s license was due to expire on May 19, so the clock, though far from striking, was still ticking in the background.

When several weeks had elapsed, Elliott called the doctor’s office and spoke to his assistant, who said the delay was the lab’s fault. Elliott continued to call, and the assistant finally said that the doctor owed the lab money and would not receive any glasses until he paid up. When Elliott called the week of April 22, the assistant said that the doctor had paid the lab, the glasses had been delivered, and she would mail Elliott’s to her. No glasses materialized. Finally, on May 5, Elliott told me about her situation. By then, worried that she wouldn’t have her new lenses by May 19, she’d gone to an optometrist closer to her home and bought a second pair.

I did some research on her Northern Virginia optometrist, and learned that he had been disciplined and fined by the Virginia Board of Optometry in November 1990. He admitted that on November 1, 1989, he had examined “Patient A” and prescribed for her even though his license had expired the day before. Further, he had “failed to keep accurate records of the patient’s examination, including failure to take and record Patient A’s internal tissue health.” I also learned that in 2016 he had been found guilty in Fairfax County of failing to yield to pedestrians and fined $30.

I called his office on May 6 and spoke to his assistant, who said that he had paid the lab and all of the glasses had been delivered that morning. Since Elliott had been told the same thing two weeks earlier, I called the lab and learned that this time, Alexa was telling the truth. Elliott received her glasses soon after. Without any action on my part, therefore, the matter was resolved.

Only one consumer tip occurs to me: If a professional you’re dealing with says that he or she is in debt and can’t pay the rent, go the other way. And if you want to check the person out ahead of time, consult Google—for instance, by asking who regulates optometrists in Virginia. You’ll be directed to a website that maintains public records on any occupation that requires licensure, and—at least in most states—be able to search for any disciplinary actions.

What’s unfortunate in this case is that while the doctor appears to be a competent (perhaps even outstanding) optometrist, he allowed crucial aspects of his professional life, such as renewing his license to practice and staying out of debt, to pull him under.



Medical Spas: A Cautionary Tale

Last summer, while walking through a high-end mall in London, Ontario, I noticed a young man standing outside an Orogold Cosmetics store across the way. He was holding a small bag, which he seemed to want to give me. I was game, and when I got closer I said, “What’s in the bag?” He purred, “A piece of my heart.” I rolled my eyes and laughed—but took the bag, which contained a couple of free samples, and followed him into the store.

I managed to escape 10 or 15 minutes later; I had spent the interim telling him that I was not going to spend a dime. Each time, he simply smiled and continued applying various potions to the inside of my forearm while asking me, in a seductive accent that turned out to be Maltese, the kind of questions I expect he thought would soften me up.

I was wise to resist his blandishments. If even a few of Orogold’s negative online reviews are to be believed—and there are dozens—its employees take pressure-cooker sales techniques to a whole new level.

Orogold came to mind when my friend Anja Gurnig, who lives outside of Toronto, told me about her experience with another company in the booming aesthetics industry. Unlike Orogold, the business, a medical spa called LaserBody M.D., gets mainly glowing reviews. Gurnig’s dispute doesn’t have to do with the company’s services, but rather with a salesperson.

Gurnig went to one of the medical spa’s Ontario locations in January 2016 to discuss one of its 17 services, which range from facials to fairly involved (but nonsurgical) procedures. The service in question was on the pricy end of the range; if she signed a contract with HealthSmart, the finance company LaserBody M.D. uses, it would cost more than $2,400 Canadian in 18 monthly payments.

Gurnig claims that she told the saleswoman she wouldn’t be ready to have the procedure for at least a few months, and asked what would happen if her doctor advised against it. The saleswoman replied that such requests were handled “on a case-by-case basis”—and, Gurnig claims, also said that most clients got their money back.

Gurnig signed the contract, which states, “Issues of medical contraindications will be handled on a per case basis.” It does not, however, go on to say that most are settled in the client’s favor.

A little more than a year later, in March 2017, Gurnig discussed the procedure with her doctor. He advised against it based on his assessment of her health at that point, and wrote a letter to LaserBody M.D. in which he stated, “I have advised against having this procedure for the foreseeable future.”

The company denied Gurnig’s request for a refund, however, and said that her only option was to finish paying the $2,400 and convert it to other services. She protested, in part because she wasn’t interested in the other services, and stated that she’d been given to believe that her doctor’s note would be sufficient grounds for a refund. The company again turned her down.

My attempts to get someone at LaserBody M.D. to discuss their refund policy were frustrating. The first employee I spoke with hung up on me, so I embarked on an online chat with another employee. As I expected, she said she couldn’t discuss a client’s case with me, but would contact the person directly if I’d give her the name.

I replied that I didn’t need to discuss the specific client (though I did give her Gurnig’s name); I was more interested in learning about LaserBody M.D.’s business practices. Specifically, I told her, I wanted to know whether salespeople receive commissions. I also wanted to talk with a manager or owner. Our chat ended soon after.

Later that day, I got an email from Derrick Hollett at the company’s corporate headquarters in Brampton, Ontario. He wrote that the company would be glad to answer questions that didn’t violate client confidentiality, if I submitted them in writing. That was less off-putting than the employee who hung up on me, but still, in my long experience, unusual. I wrote back that I had only one question: Do LaserBody M.D. salespeople receive commissions?

He replied that such information was confidential, and went on to question my ethics as a journalist. At that point I called his office and left a message, but he didn’t call back. So I settled for another email, in which I explained the methods I use when investigating a consumer complaint and again asked to speak by phone. He failed to respond, by either phone or email.

So much for his and the other employee’s claims that they’d contact Gurnig to discuss her complaint; it’s been a week now, and no one has called .

I was intrigued by the results of a Google search on “medical spa sales pressure,” which landed on a PowerPoint presentation entitled “Medi-Spa Phone and Consult Training” by Matt Taranto of the Aesthetic Consulting Group of Kansas City. To his credit, he warns against suggesting anything the potential client doesn’t need.

Even so, four of his suggestions raised red flags for me:

  • “The ideal opportunity is when they are there because they want to ‘look better/younger’ overall”
  • “Can their want/need be rolled into a more expensive ‘package’?”
  • “Do not start low and try to move up, start high and only come down if you have to”; and
  • “Have your client look at the [photos the salesperson has taken] and ask, ‘What are three things you would like to improve about the way you look?’”

Almost every form of commerce involves a sales transaction, which often comes with some degree of pressure. In this case, we can’t know what Gurnig’s salesperson said. Cautioned by her experience, though, we can guard against a similar fate.



Seniors, Beware: Scammers Want Your $$$

Craig Brunell is at his wits’ end. His 91-year-old mother was “hit hard and heavy” last October by scammers who offered to sell her new cars at next to nothing; she only needed to pay for minor things like title fees. Alas, no cars materialized; only more requests to pay various fees.

Brunell, who lives in Topeka, KS—about two hours from his mother—emailed his account of the chaos that ensued. “In early February,” he wrote, “10 to 15 banking institutions in her local area began calling to say my mother was covering lots of ground in a four-county area ‘with her hair afire,’” as one caller described her. She had so aggravated the banks she dealt with that all but one had closed her accounts and refused her business. The president of the remaining bank is a close friend of Brunell’s, and the two are attempting to limit the damage as much as possible.

That’s proven to be a Herculean task. Brunell is in the process of becoming his mother’s conservator, which requires the involvement of her doctor and the Kansas State Department of Elder Abuse. He’s also removed her landline phones, changed her cell phone number twice, arranged to have all mail except for newspapers and magazines forwarded to him, and taken charge of paying her bills. Meanwhile, he says, she’s promising to behave “and lying through her dentures about how much she may have sent the crooks.” His best estimate is that since last October, “she’s dumped about $80,000 down the rat hole.”

Brunell’s story brought back some painful memories of my own. In the last two years or so of my stepmother’s life, she wrote checks worth $330,000 to three people who worked at a care center in Sun City West, AZ. She was grateful to them for having taken care of her older sister, who had been a resident of the care center for several years—and as my stepmother slipped into cognitive decline, she became easier to get money out of.

Thankfully, my sister had power of attorney, and when she discovered what was going on she confronted all three and reported them to the care center, whose employees are expressly forbidden from accepting money from residents or their families. Obviously, that policy was easy to ignore for at least three of their employees, and I suspect for many more.

If you’re concerned about potential financial abuse, either of yourself or a family member or friend, I recommend two resources. The first is the American Bankers Association website,, which has lots of information and tips on a broad range of topics.

I’m well acquainted with the second resource because, as a freelance academic editor, I’ve worked for a number of years with Peter Lichtenberg at Wayne State University. Lichtenberg is the Director of the Institute of Gerontology and Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute at Wayne State, and has conducted extensive research on elder financial abuse. Based on the results, he created three tools for determining whether an elder has been, or is at risk of becoming, the victim of undue influence in financial matters. The tools are available, along with links to his research and other resources, at

The first tool, the Financial Decision Tracker, is for “professionals who work with older adults making significant financial decisions, including attorneys, financial planners, bankers, investment brokers, insurance agents, accountants, law enforcement officers, and Adult Protective Services case workers.” It consists of a 10-question interview that takes about 10 minutes.

The Financial Vulnerability Assessment is for “mental health professionals who are well trained in administering standardized tests, including psychologists, psychiatrists, physicians, therapists, counselors, nurse practitioners and pastoral counselors.” This is an in-depth interview, and takes 20-25 minutes.

The Family & Friends Interview “seeks to understand an older adult’s recent financial decision by interviewing a trusted relative, friend or professional acquaintance of the older adult”—ideally, someone “who would not benefit from the older adult’s financial decision.” The interview takes about 10 minutes, and is best used in combination with one of the other tools. All three tools require training, which is accessible online.

According to Lichtenberg’s website, “one in every 20 adults in the U.S. is a victim of financial exploitation, losing an average of $80,000 to $186,000.” That puts Brunell’s mother at the low end of the range. I’m hoping she won’t go higher—or, more precisely, that she won’t go deeper.

Are you having a problem with a business you can’t resolve? I might be able to help. E-mail me at, visit my website at

The Miseries of Mold

When a person becomes a landlord, I used to think, a giant syringe descends from the sky and extracts whatever morals or conscience the person possesses. You won’t be surprised to hear that I was a tenant when I formed that opinion; I was a tenant for many years, in many apartments, with many landlords. Most seemed to believe that when it comes to rental property, cutting corners wherever possible is good business.

So when I bought a house in Charlottesville, VA in 2001 that included an apartment, I swore I’d treat my tenants the way I wished I’d been treated myself. Still, I fell far short of perfect. I put a lot of money and effort into upgrading the apartment and landscaping the yard, but I wince when I remember how persnickety, and sometimes nosy, I tended to be.

My last tenant for the year and a half or so before I sold the house and moved to the Allegheny Highlands in 2015 was Ann Clark, a well-known local artist and teacher. We’d been friends for many years, and I was glad that she needed an apartment when I needed a tenant. We largely fell out of touch after I moved, but when she heard that I’d resurrected the Fearless Consumer, she contacted me with a complaint about—you guessed it—her landlord.

The landlord in this case, technically, is the Jefferson Area Board for Aging (JABA), but the 27-unit complex Clark lives in, Timberlake Place, is managed by the Piedmont Housing Alliance (PHA). The one- and two-bedroom apartments, which include access to a communal garden, blend in well with Charlottesville’s historic Woolen Mills neighborhood.

I have a lot of respect for the work JABA has done in the region over many years; I also have great affection for Clark—two things that make this a harder than usual column to write. The first reason is that as landlords, I believe that JABA and PHA are well intentioned and well qualified to own and manage properties that offer affordable, safe shelter for over-55 and lower-income residents. In other words, I don’t see any syringes hovering above their offices.

So I was distressed to learn, after talking to Clark and two other tenants, that Timberlake Place has had problems with mold that go back to at least the summer of 2017. That’s when Clark, who had moved into a ground-level apartment in May, noticed that she had white mold. She contacted PHA in August or September 2017, and Green Home Solutions (GHS) treated her apartment while PHA put her up at Homewood Suites. GHS also treated the apartment across from Clark’s, and in that case, the resident states that she hasn’t had additional problems.

Clark’s problems persisted, however, and in December 2017 PHA moved her to an apartment on the upper level. They also reduced her rent for one month by $300 to reimburse her for a doctor bill related to symptoms she believed were caused by the mold. Things seemed fine at first, but then, Clark claims, the mold came back. She says it was most obvious on a large leather couch and leather chair, but had spread to other areas as well.

Which brings me to the second reason this column’s harder than most to write: Clark’s apartment is extremely cluttered, which complicates any assignment of blame. This is a crucial factor, because mold is much harder to eliminate in a cluttered environment, where air can’t move freely and tends to stagnate. Those conditions tend to raise the humidity level and, in turn, promote (or, at least, fail to discourage) the growth of mold.

I exchanged emails with LaTasha Durrett, PHA’s communications manager, who stated that GHS had conducted mold testing in Clark’s current apartment and concluded that the level was “not elevated.” Durrett also noted that it had been “especially damp throughout the Central Virginia region in 2018” and listed several conditions that can promote the growth of mold, including, most pointedly, “cramped spaces”—that is, an extremely cluttered apartment.

In a January 11, 2019, letter, PHA offered to have Clark’s clothing and furniture professionally cleaned, but stated that “no further payments will be made or concessions provided on your rent.” Clark plans to take them up on their offer to clean her clothing, but sees no point in again cleaning the leather couch and chair—which, as I saw for myself, both have mold. At one point, she claims, PHA offered to dispose of them for her. When I asked Durrett whether that was correct, however, she only replied that “Ms. Clark has not given us the responses/conversations that we need to proceed with further action.”

I also asked how Durrett would describe Timberlake Place’s current mold status, and she replied, “Remediated currently, to our knowledge.” Unfortunately, she may have spoken too soon. I later heard from another Timberlake Place resident, Mary Coughlin, who moved into her lower-level apartment in February 2017. Her problems with mold, which she claims began shortly after she moved in, were allegedly exacerbated by a dishwasher that repeatedly flooded and a series of “four or five” dehumidifiers that kept blowing a fuse. Maintenance personnel, who had placed the dehumidifiers in the bedroom, claimed that Coughlin was overloading the circuit; Coughlin says she only uses one small light in that room.

PHA eventually installed a new outlet in the hallway for the dehumidifier, which solved the blown-fuse problem. In an April 25, 2018 email, PHA also promised to clean her carpets. That didn’t happen, however, and 10 months later, on Feb. 24, Coughlin again emailed PHA to ask when the carpets would be cleaned. When we spoke on March 3, she hadn’t received a reply.

“There are unresolved mold issues in my apartment,” Coughlin told me. Timberlake Place may disagree, and if so, I’d like to hear their side of the story. In the meantime, I’m fervently hoping for a long stretch of dry weather and sunlight, and that both sides will find a way to permanently resolve their persistent problems with mold.

Are you having a problem with a business you can’t resolve? I might be able to help. E-mail me at, visit my website at


Thinking of Co-Signing? Think Again.

This is the story of a woman who wanted to help a friend, the company that loaned her friend money, and the strings attached that ensnared them both. There are no villains here, and I’m not going to use any names; instead, think of this as a cautionary tale. We’ll call the two women Susan Hoover and Angela Reeve, and the loan company Prime Lenders. The women live in Bath County, VA, and Prime Lenders is in nearby Augusta County.

In 2016, Reeve was struggling financially and, as Hoover describes it, “trying to get her son through high school.” Hoover had co-signed a loan for Reeve several years earlier, with a different lender, and there had been no problems. She was willing to step in again, and this time they went to Prime Lenders.

Hoover took out a $2,000 loan in her own name, with Reeve as the co-signer, and turned over the title to her car. Reeve continued to struggle, so the next year they went back and borrowed somewhere between $7,000 and $8,000. With the principal and interest left from the first loan, they now owed a little more than $10,000. This time, however, the loan was in Reeve’s name and Hoover was the co-signer.

Hoover claims that Prime Lenders told Reeve her first payment wouldn’t be due for 90 days, then withdrew the payment from her checking account 30 days later. The relationship continued in that vein, with Prime Lenders claiming that Reeve was late in her payments—and therefore owed interest—and Reeve producing bank statements that showed the payments being deducted on time.

After going on like that for a while, everything fell apart: Reeve was diagnosed with cancer and declared Chapter 13 bankruptcy. To quote from the website of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, Chapter 13 “provides the opportunity to restructure debts through a payment plan which normally lasts three years. With court approval, a plan may last up to five years. The Chapter 13 Trustee receives all funds paid into the plan and pays creditors from these funds.” In Chapter 7 bankruptcy, in contrast, everything is liquidated except for exempted assets.

Hoover says that she offered to pay as much as $4,000 up front and take over the payments, but claims that Prime Lenders wasn’t interested. Instead, they were interested in repeatedly calling her to talk about the loan and her responsibilities as a co-signer. She finally called her lawyer and the lawyer wrote Prime Lenders a letter, but Hoover wasn’t clear about the content. In any case, the calls stopped.

Hoover contacted me because she worried that Prime Lenders, which still had the title to her car, could repossess it. It was in bad shape, and she’d let the insurance and tags expire—but now she was thinking of getting it running again. What if Prime Lenders swooped in to claim it after she’d spent a lot of money? She said that her lawyer wasn’t returning her calls, and she needed to know.

I spoke with Hoover’s lawyer, who had received permission to discuss her case. He explained why the calls had suddenly stopped: In his letter to Prime Lenders, he had reminded them of the “co-debtor stay” provision in bankruptcy law: As long as the bankruptcy is in good standing, co-signers can’t be pursued for payment.

Still, as Hoover’s lawyer said, there will be a day of reckoning—in other words, at some point the loan will have to be paid by one or the other party. He estimated that that would probably happen in four years or so. In the meantime, though, Hoover doesn’t need to worry about her car.

He described Prime Lenders as a “lender of last resort” that charges about 24% interest; that’s at least twice what a conventional lender would charge. In other words, it’s a step up from a payday loan, but it’s still close to the bottom.

If you’re thinking of co-signing a loan, you’d do well to look at it as a gift. If the person lives up to their commitment, fine—but if they don’t, you’ll be stuck with the balance.


If you’re having money-related problems, you might not know about Debtors Anonymous. It’s based on the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and has helped thousands of debtors not only get out of debt, but go on to live prosperous, debt-free lives. The organization’s website is There are no dues or fees, and phone meetings are held from morning to night, every day of the week.


Are you having a problem with a business you can’t resolve? I might be able to help. E-mail me at or visit my website at

Verizon Subscriber? Better Check Your Bill

Paperless bills—so convenient, right? Well, maybe not. As Bernice Joo has learned, the apparent convenience makes it easy to overlook something that can be mighty expensive: If you don’t get your bill in the mail, you might not realize that the business has no idea where you actually live. In Joo’s case, that oversight cost hundreds of dollars.

Joo and her husband, who live in Milpitas, California, have a cell phone plan with Verizon. Each has a line, and a family friend in Rhode Island also has one. Recently, Joo’s husband went over their online bill and realized that two of the three lines—Joo’s and their friend’s—were being charged $3.81 per month for a Los Angeles City utility user tax, even though the couple hasn’t lived in LA since August 2011 and the other person has never lived there.

Joo sent me their December 2018 bill, along with a print-out of a lengthy online chat she’d had with two Verizon employees. I forwarded the transcript to Heidi Flato, Verizon’s media contact for California, on January 25. She responded by saying that she would ask the “executive relations team” to investigate and contact Joo. I replied that I’d also need to talk with her so that I could explain Verizon’s policies to my readers.

Sadly, that turned out to be a lofty goal. No wonder Joo was frustrated by the time she contacted me; getting two Verizon employees to agree on this point took a lot of effort on both our parts.

First, in the course of her interactions with Verizon, Joo learned that she had only updated the billing address in 2016—first to Daly City, where they lived for a year, and then to Milpitas. So instead of overcharging the account for the whole seven and a half years, Verizon had only overcharged it for the last two. During her online chat on January 7, however, Joo assumed that she had changed the address when they moved in 2011, and the discussion proceeded on that assumption.

Seven and a half years of overcharging would amount to roughly $650, yet the Verizon employee only offered to reimburse Joo for 6 months, or about $45. She rejected his offer. The employee, Ryan, consulted his supervisor, who agreed to credit Joo for one year’s worth of erroneous taxes, or about $90. Joo rejected that offer as well and asked to be connected to the supervisor.

To recap before we move on, Ryan’s position was that Joo should have alerted Verizon to each line’s correct location, since, as he stated in the chat, “each number has its own billing address.” Since she hadn’t, Verizon had continued to charge two of the lines as if they were still in LA. Her husband’s line hadn’t been similarly taxed because the account was in his name, and the billing address was changed first to Dale City and then Milpitas. Joo asked why Verizon had never alerted them that they needed to update the other addresses, and Ryan replied that that’s why Verizon sends out detailed bills.

When he finally agreed to turn the conversation over to his supervisor, Riley, things seemed to be looking up. Riley agreed that Verizon should alert customers to verify that the address for each line is correct, “because the line might be used in another state that is not the primary address on the account.” She also promised to “find a workable solution.”

After updating the addresses, Riley said that she would create an escalation form with the history of the overcharges. If the taxes were found to be wrong, she said, the account would be reimbursed in full. The conversation then slipped into technological limbo when Riley started saying that she wasn’t hearing anything from Joo, even though Joo, on her end, was firing off messages in which she implored Riley not to sign off. Instead, Riley ended the chat.

As for Ryan and Riley’s assertion that each line should have its own address—and that the taxes for each line should depend on the address—Flato, the media contact, contradicted their version. According to Flato’s email, “taxes are based on the customer’s billing address.” I responded, “To clarify, taxes are based only on the account holder’s address? And it doesn’t matter where the other lines are physically located, right?” To which she replied, “Yes.”

We’ll return to that clear-as-mud issue in a minute. But first, back to the aborted online chat and Riley’s promise. Whatever happened with the escalation form after allegedly being created on January 7, it didn’t result in a refund or any other kind of outreach to Joo. Within two or three hours of my contacting Flato on January 25, however, someone from the executive relations team called Joo’s husband and offered a $155 credit.

That was a fair offer; it turns out that Joo and her husband should have been charged a Dale City utility tax for the year they lived there, which is only a bit lower than LA’s. Instead of the roughly $180 that it seemed they were due, Jared had factored in the unpaid Dale City tax to arrive at $155.

Jared also explained the difference between a billing address and a service address. Ryan and Riley were correct in grasping that the individual user’s physical location matters, but confused the issue by failing to use the correct terminology. Flato, in contrast, seems to be unaware of this fairly important aspect of Verizon’s billing structure. In any case, updating individual service addresses takes initiative on the customer’s part. Verizon’s online account profile distinguishes between the two address types, but the actual bill, whether online or mailed, doesn’t include the service address for each line.

Joo accepted the $155 credit—because, as she said via email, “I felt I had no more recourse. I was extremely frustrated by the issue itself as well as the process: the fact that it’s not clear to the consumer that you need to change service addresses for each line in addition to changing the main address, and the hours I had to spend on chat, e-mail, and phone, explaining, pushing back and escalating the case to try to resolve the issue.”

So here’s my advice for Verizon subscribers: If you’ve opted for paperless billing, make sure you haven’t also opted for taxes you shouldn’t be paying.

Have you had a problem with a business you couldn’t resolve? I might be able to help. E-mail me at, visit my website at

The Night I Conned a Conman

I was wearing a black sweater-dress that stopped six inches above my knees, black hose, my highest of heels, and Chanel No. 5. The best part, however, was in my little black purse: a tape recorder. That’s because I wasn’t dressing for a man; I was dressing for a scam.

It was an October evening in 1997, and I was headed for the Day’s Inn in Charlottesville. I’d been writing my Fearless Consumer column for about a year when I learned that a company called Pro Images would be coming to town¾and I was loaded for bear. A reader had contacted me about her experience with Pro Images, which was about as transparent a fraud as you’ll run across. But it traded on people’s hopes, see, and that can be an easy commodity to steal.

“Real People Needed as Models!” their want ad declared. “All sizes and all ages” would receive “guaranteed offers” and earn “up to $125/hr.” Nine months earlier, our unhappy reader had fallen for their come-on. She was 60, wore a size 16, and apparently believed the Pro Images rep when he said that senior citizens had a 98% chance of getting assignments. She paid $300 to have her picture taken, signed a contract, and went home to wait for the phone to ring. Of course, it didn’t. She complained to the company’s office in Atlanta, and they referred her to the fine print that relieved them of liability. So she contacted me and I rolled up my sleeves.

A small crowd was gathering in the meeting room when I arrived. I took a seat at the front, turned my tape recorder on, and settled back to listen as the sales rep/photographer drew castles in the air for people who were ready to believe. When he asked if we had any questions, my hand shot up and I began quizzing him about our reader’s experience.

He blustered and accused me of “insulting his integrity,” but I kept asking questions he didn’t want to answer. Before long the room was empty, and the photographer and his associate packed up their camera and credit-card machine and disappeared into the night. That’s one of my favorite Fearless Consumer memories from my years in Charlottesville.

When I started writing the column, I had no experience as a reporter. What I had was an itch to stand up to businesses when someone had been taken advantage of. But my love for this work ran much deeper; I soon began to discover shades of gray in many of the disputes readers brought me. In a few cases, I even discovered that the consumer, not the business, had been at fault. In many more, however, I realized that both sides had been at fault to one degree or another.

The best part was working to achieve a resolution both sides could live with. That didn’t happen 100% of the time, but I got pretty good at helping a business owner or media relations person see the light when it was clear that the consumer had been treated unfairly. The solutions covered a lot of ground, from apologizing for rude behavior to, in the case of a Charlottesville car dealership, paying $3,200 for being fleeced by a used car salesman.

Two cases were so extreme that the owners were ultimately charged with crimes. One, Lethal Wrecker, was forced to stop doing business (but, I heard later, simply regrouped under a new name). The other was a husband-and-wife team, Joe Bob and Jeannie Selman, who pocketed clients’ medical insurance premiums, along with committing multiple other crimes, and were sent to federal prison.

I have three goals for every column. First, to investigate the dispute, talk to both sides, and present my findings. Second, ideally, to bring both parties to a settlement. And third, to suggest ways the reader, in the same situation, could guard against running into problems.

Exploring the dynamics of what’s gone wrong between a business and a consumer fascinates me. Even better, though, is figuring out how to make it right.

Have you had a problem with a business you couldn’t resolve? I might be able to help. E-mail me at, or visit my website at


Express Scripts? Not So Fast

When Barbara Buhr started to feel lightheaded on Jan. 16, she had good reason to worry: Her blood pressure, which had been spiking since November, was up, and her new medication hadn’t arrived. That seemed odd; her physician at the University of Virginia had sent the prescription to Express Scripts on Jan. 7, and someone from the mail-order pharmacy had called on Jan. 9 to verify her address in Warm Springs, VA. Buhr would receive her medication in 3 to 5 days, she was told—yet now a week had gone by. Something was wrong.When she called Express Scripts, the employee she spoke with accessed her order and said that the prescription had been turned over to DHL in Raleigh, NC, on Jan. 9, and had been there ever since. She advised Buhr to call her physician for an “in-transit prescription,” which could be filled locally. But when Buhr called the clinic at Northridge—one of U.Va.’s off-site facilities—she learned that the power was out, which meant that they couldn’t authorize the prescription. Buhr again called Express Scripts, after which a 2-week prescription was sent to Hot Springs Pharmacy and she was able, at last, to get her medication.

On its website, Express Scripts promises to “make sure you and your family get affordable medicine, quickly and conveniently.” So what went wrong?

I asked Buhr to make one more phone call and ask Express Scripts for the shipment’s tracking history, which confirmed that it had indeed spent a week in Raleigh. After that, DHL had delivered it to a USPS facility in Richmond on Jan. 17, where the Postal Service, unlike DHL, quickly sent it on its way. Although the tracking information had predicted that it wouldn’t arrive in Warm Springs until Tuesday, Jan. 22, it landed in Buhr’s PO box the following day.

I spoke with Daniel McGrath in DHL’s Media Relations department, who responded to my questions by email. “We feel terrible that Ms. Buhr experienced this delay in her medication,” he wrote. No “exact root cause” had been found, but “other packages to the same ZIP Code during the week of January 6th were delivered within 3 or 4 days.” DHL would work with Express Scrips and the Postal Service, he stated, “to identify the root cause as part of [DHL’s] commitment to continuous improvement.”

I also spoke with Brian Henry at Express Scripts, who wasted no time expressing sympathy for Buhr went he emailed his terse response: “I know the member filled a 30 day supply at retail earlier this week. Given the delay, we were able to authorize a retail fill. We are looking into the reason for delay with the shipping company.” (He might start by getting his facts straight; the in-transit prescription was for 14 days, not 30. A trivial point, perhaps, but still.)

Billie Hull of Hot Springs, who also uses Express Scripts, says she’s never had a problem. Her insulin, which has to be refrigerated, is delivered to her home by UPS, and other medications go to her PO box. Clearly, Express Scripts understands that at least one type of medication merits the “quick and convenient” delivery it promises on its website.

But high blood pressure, like diabetes, is serious business. According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, “extremely high blood pressure”—180 mm Hg or higher of systolic pressure or 120 mm HG or higher of diastolic pressure—constitutes a “hypertensive crisis . . . that can lead to a stroke.” In mid-November, Buhr’s blood pressure spiked to 177/100 and she spent 5 hours in the ER.

After that, Buhr’s physician raised the dosage of the drug she was already taking, and her systolic pressure came down. The diastolic pressure, however, wasn’t budging, and so her doctor prescribed metoprolol on Jan. 7. Together, she hoped, the two medications would bring both values into a safe range. So when Buhr began feeling ill again on Jan. 16, she knew she needed to get the metoprolol working as soon as possible.

For chronic medications, mail-order pharmacies are usually a good choice; they tend to be cheaper (often much cheaper), and being spared the trip to a pharmacy can be a huge benefit for the elderly or disabled, or in rural areas. When mail-order medications go MIA, however, the convenience factor goes out the window.

I’m hoping that Express Scripts and DHL will improve how they track prescriptions en route to clients. For instance, employees could ask for an email address when calling to verify the member’s mailing address; that would allow the company, like most other online retailers, to send an email with the tracking number when the order is shipped. Not everyone has email, of course, and even those who do might not stay on top of a prescription’s progress.

As a stopgap measure, given that a mail-order pharmacy’s failure to deliver medication on time can have grave consequences, DHL could implement an alert system for time-sensitive items after they’ve spent more than 24-48 hours in one location. That way, DHL could intervene quickly and save others from undergoing Buhr’s ordeal.


Have you had a problem with a business you couldn’t resolve? If so, I might be able to help. Click on “Tell Me about Your Complaint” or email me at


Links to the Fearless Consumer columns I wrote for The Hook (Charlottesville, VA) between 2002 and 2007 can be found here. The columns I wrote for C’Ville Weekly from 1996 to 1999 appeared in C-Ville‘s pre-online era.


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