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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at the number below.
Alejandra Matos • 612-673-4028
Here is another example of the e-mails that are hitting inboxes as the Affordable Care Act requirements roll out.
This one is not legitimate, as is obvious by the bad grammar. The header should read "you're not covered," though good grammar is hardly a sign of good intentions.
As Minnesotans begin shopping for health insurance, MNsure released some tips on how to avoid healthcare scams.
Two weeks ago, I wrote about about health scams that were already hitting the state, particularly seniors.
Here are the tips from MNsure:
An international sweepstakes scam that has already cost consumers, mostly seniors, $11 million is the Federal Trade Commission's latest target in stopping these kinds of swindles.
On Sept. 16, the FTC filed a lawsuit against Ventura, Calif., resident Liam O. Moran and his companies for sending out personalized letters to millions of consumers claiming they had won more than $2 million in sweepstakes money.
The letter then states the recipients have to send a $20 to $30 fee. The fine print on the back of the letter does tell consumers in "dense, confusing language" that they have not won anything and the fee is to provide consumers with a list of available sweepstakes, according to the FTC.
"The defendants have sent more than 3.7 million letters during the past two years, including nearly 800,000 letters to people in 156 countries in the first half of 2013," the FTC said in a news release Monday. "They have collected more than $11 million from consumers since 2009. The vast majority of the victims of this scam appear to be over 65."
Read the full complaint here.
|Crime (1)||Employment (1)|
|Whistleblower (440)||Home Improvement (4)|
|Advertising claims (66)||Businesses in hot water (300)|
|Buyer beware (183)||Civil liberties (19)|
|Complaint sagas (110)||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 (37)|
|Scams (145)||Seniors (40)|
|Whistleblowers (22)||Discrimination (4)|