The Whistleblower blog was started in 2008. Look for posts by these contributors: James Eli Shiffer, Jane Friedmann, Brandon Stahl, Eric Roper and Alejandra Matos. | Check out the Whistleblower archive.
The Star Tribune's journalists need your help blowing the whistle in Minnesota. Contact us here.
Consumers who like to shop may be enticed to enter a secret shopping program, but the Better Business Bureau says mailings attempting to introduce people to mystery shopping are usually bogus.
Typically marketing companies businesses hire secret shoppers to evaluate the customer service or to gather information on a specific product. For example, a clothing store may want to ensure their employees are asking customers to sign up for a store credit card, so the company may hire secret shoppers who will go the store and then answer a survey.
The BBB of Minnesota and North Dakota said some secret shopping schemes look official because the scammers mail real-looking checks from legitimate businesses, sometimes sent via UPS or FedEx.
"The checks are bogus and these businesses have no association with these schemes," the BBB said in a news release Tuesday.
Firms do not typically send out checks to lure in potential secret shoppers,according to the BBB. "At best, being a secret shopper offers supplemental income."
The BBB advises visiting the Mystery Shopping Providers Association website, mysteryshop.org, for a list of reputable mystery shopping companies.
The Minnesota Department of Commerce urged consumers last week to research investment offers and services before making their investments.
The department said the recent lifting of an 80-year old ban on advertising of private offerings has the potential to lead to greater abuse.
"This is a reminder for investors that whether using a new crowdfunding portal or an accredited investor aggregator, it is important to do your due diligence and to understand the risks involved when using an unregulated third party," the department said in a statement released last week.
The department also released an updated list of top threats to investors and small businesses, compiled by the North American Security Administrators Association.
Here are the top investment schemes for 2013, according to the NASAA:
New Investor Threats
New Small Business Threats
Attorney General Lori Swanson is warning Minnesotans to beware of look-alike websites of governement services or personal business transactions, such as credit reports.
In her monthly consumer alert column, Swanson said Minnesotans have paid fees for address changes, tax identification numbers and credit reports, which are all free or at a low cost, because they landed on a website that only resembled the official agency.
Swanson described the experience of one consumer identified only as "Christina," who "wanted to re-direct her mail while she was away at college. She ordered an address change from a website that had a similar logo as the United States Post Office, only instead of a blue eagle, the website had a blue bear. Christina missed the nuance and paid $40 for the purported service," Swanson said. "Her mail was not forwarded and when Christina called her local Post Office, the representative told her that changing an address online costs $1."
Swanson said people can protect themselves by looking at the extension of the website. For example, a governement website should end with .gov.
People should also search through a reliable source, like a governement portal, to doublecheck contact information for state agencies, Swanson said.
Minnesota's portal for state agencies, board and commissions is mn.gov/portal/government/state/agencies-boards-commissions.
William and Chouhei Mullin received two letters from an unidentified company offering assistance in minimizing their debt. The Minneapolis couple sent the letters to Whistleblower telling us they came from "fraudsters" and said they do not owe the $27,928 the letters claim.
I called the 800-numbers listed at the bottom of the letter and a man, who would only say his name is Mike, identified the company as the Validation Center. I told him I was a reporter and he answered some of my questions, which usually doesn't happen when we call numbers listed on most mail-in offers we receive.
The company is based in San Diego and offers debt relief services such as credit counseling, bankruptcy and debt resolution services, which can reduce the amount of debt. Mike said the company may charge a fee once the debts have been reduced or eliminated. He wouldn't say how much. He said the letters are sent to people who are behind on their credit card payments, but Bill Mullin said they have paid everything on time.
Before we got off the phone, Mike insisted I tell the couple to give him a call, so he can help them out.
Dan Hendrickson, with the Better Business Bureau, said they have not come across this particular company, but the offers are not uncommon.
"Each letter contains only the barest amount of information on what company is behind this offer and what they're actually offering," Hendrickson said. "The general names they claim to operate under tell me they're looking to keep a low profile."
Attorney General Lori Swanson warned consumers in 2010 not to pay up-front fees for debt assistance programs.
"Most debt management companies are required to be licensed by the Minnesota Department of Commerce," said the AG's office in a consumer warning on their website. "Therefore, before you hire a debt management company, check with the State Commerce Department to be sure it is properly licensed."
The Validation Center is not a licensed debt settlement or management company in Minnesota, according to the Commerce Department's website.
Here are the letters:
The other day, one of my Star Tribune colleagues was pulling out of a parking space when a cyclist zoomed out of nowhere, hit his car and shattered his windshield. The next bombardment came through his mailbox, thanks to lawyers and chiropractors who wanted his business.
In less than three weeks, 14 solicitations arrived in the mail. A chiropractic clinic sent a gift certificate valued at $250 for a full chiropractic examination, any needed X-rays and a “doctor’s recommendation to get you well.”
It’s a legal way of drumming up business, and the professionals comb through public records to find people involved in accidents. But an insurance industry representative said these types of advertisements may lure people into clinics to exploit the state’s no-fault insurance benefits that often cover medical expenses for accident victims.
Last year, Minnesota lawmakers tightened the rules on these solicitations by forbidding medical professionals from advertising how much money an accident victim can gain under the no-fault system.
One of the mail solicitations appeared to violate the law. But the licensing board in charge of enforcing it, in this case the Minnesota Board of Chiropractic Examiners, isn’t doing so because of a pending lawsuit challenging the new restriction.
‘$20,000 in benefits for you!’
The solicitations came from chiropractic clinics and trial attorneys from all around the Twin Cities.
Attorneys mostly sent official-looking letters stating they can help get my colleague’s medical bills paid, in addition to fixing his car and even transporting him to and from a clinic. Paige Donnelly, a personal injury attorney in Minnesota and Wisconsin, sent a yellow trifold pamphlet explaining the benefits of no-fault policies.
Chiropractors sent glossy postcards, with photos of smiling doctors or a woman looking relaxed as she received a massage. They also sent “gift certificates,” valued from $145 to more than $400, for massages or consultations.
“Remember, the scariest thing is what cannot be seen,” one of them wrote. “You might seem fine now, but symptoms can come later.”
A yellow postcard with a free one-hour massage offer from ProSpine Health and Injury in Eden Prairie says “if you have been hurt, even just a little, from a recent accident, in practically all cases you are covered 100% under the Minnesota No Fault Act. Policy limits allow for at least $20,000 in benefits for you!”
Last year’s legislation banned medical professionals from making “any reference to the dollar amounts of the potential benefits” under no-fault insurance. Attorneys do not have the same restrictions as chiropractors and other medical professionals.
One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka and a chiropractor, said ProSpine is “clearly violating the law.”
ProSpine did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Another sponsor, Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said he wants to limit the solicitations because “that’s where the abuse of no-fault tends to come out of,” he said.
The Insurance Federation of Minnesota, a trade group, said some solicitations may be helpful in educating people about the benefits they can receive from no-fault, but he said these types of practices can also “breed fraud,” and may mislead those involved in a car accident to believe they are entitled to cash payoffs.
“That’s not money going to you. It goes to the doctors or attorneys,” said Mark Kulda, spokesman for the Insurance Federation of Minnesota. “That’s the kind of language that starts to cross the line.”Board told not to enforce law
The Minnesota Board of Chiropractic Examiners is tasked with enforcing the advertising law for chiropractors. Dr. Larry Spicer, the board director, said he does not have any open complaints on advertising practices. He said that Attorney General Lori Swanson’s office has advised the board not to enforce the law at this time because of pending litigation.
After the amendments were passed last year, 1-800-411-PAIN and its executives sued the board to prevent the law’s implementation. A federal judge in December said the board can enforce the law, but 1-800-411-PAIN appealed that ruling.
Despite the attorney general’s advice, Spicer said the board’s website clearly states that chiropractors should be obeying it.
“Doctors of chiropractic are advised to be aware of the conditions of this statute, and comply accordingly with all advertising requirements, including these,” the website says.
Spicer would not comment on ProSpine’s advertisement.
My colleague, by the way, wasn’t injured.
If you’ve been in a car wreck in Minnesota, Whistleblower wants to hear about your experience with no-fault insurance. Send an e-mail to email@example.com or call me at the number below.
Alejandra Matos • 612-673-4028
|Crime (1)||Employment (1)|
|Whistleblower (439)||Home Improvement (4)|
|Advertising claims (64)||Businesses in hot water (287)|
|Buyer beware (181)||Civil liberties (19)|
|Complaint sagas (109)||Corruption (1)|
|Dangerous products (49)||Free speech (1)|
|Government spends your money (30)||How to blow the whistle (12)|
|Loopholes (10)||Neighborhood nuisances (36)|
|Polling problems (21)||Problems on the job (14)|
|Property problems (44)||Public records (35)|
|Scams (142)||Seniors (39)|
|Whistleblowers (22)||Discrimination (4)|