Authorities say they know who is responsible for the annoying, deceptive phone calls that bombarded Lehigh Valley seniors last year with offers of free medical-alert devices.
A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order last week and froze the assets of 10 companies in Florida that authorities allege were responsible for making the robocalls.
But local seniors should remain on alert because several people have called the Watchdog recently to say they're still getting the calls — but from live telemarketers instead of recorded voices.
Steve Baker, a director at the Federal Trade Commission, said authorities believe that the Florida operation was responsible for most of the calls nationwide, but it's possible others are making them, too.
Last week, the FTC and the Florida attorney general's office sued 10 companies and three men they allege were involved in that operation. The agencies are seeking to shut it down permanently and recover money for victims.
The calls offered people free medical-alert systems and then charged them monthly monitoring fees of $34.95, authorities said. The callers preyed on seniors' fears of being alone and not being able to get help in an emergency.
"You call enough older consumers, you're going to find some people with dementia or Alzheimer's," Baker said at a news conference Monday. "They knew they were dealing with people who weren't all there anymore. And they took their money anyway."
Nationwide, about 67,000 people filed complaints about the calls over the past two years, the FTC said.
People who followed the automated prompts to speak to an operator weren't told about the charge until the end of the conversation, the lawsuit alleges, and then falsely were told they wouldn't be charged until they received and activated their alarm.
The FTC noted that some people who agreed to the fees got the promised system.
"While the product seems to work, and the pricing is competitive with similar products, many consumers who were misled into agreeing to receive the product simply do not want or need it," authorities said in court records.
Several versions of the call hit the Lehigh Valley. Of all the scams I've written about, this one seemed to bother people the most, based on the volume of complaints I received and the outrage about the nature of the calls, which frightened some senior citizens.
The first wave last spring told people they could receive an alarm at "no cost to you whatsoever" after someone recommended it for them or bought it for them.
"It's the 'fallen-and-I-can't-get-up' type of system you've seen on TV," a recorded voice told a North Whitehall Township man. "Looks like you are getting the system because either yourself, a friend, a family member or maybe even someone you know has experienced a fall in the past."
By late summer, calls were offering people $3,000 in free groceries in addition to free medical alarms.
"If you or a family member are 60 years old or older, you now qualify under the new National Senior Assistance Program to receive $3,000 in free grocery savings certificates," said one of the calls received by a woman in Bethlehem. "They can be used at over a hundred major grocery chains across the U.S."
Court documents filed against the Florida operation cite the same calls.
"Needless to say, we are not aware of anyone who has received $3,000 in free groceries," the FTC and the Florida attorney general said in the court records.
Authorities say the callers refused to identify their company name or address and hid their phone numbers on caller-identification systems by "spoofing" fake numbers. They refused to tell people who supposedly signed them up for the systems, lied about the systems being endorsed by organizations such as the American Heart Association and pressured hesitant seniors into signing up, according to court records.
Last week's lawsuit was filed against these companies and individuals: Worldwide Info Services, Elite Information Solutions, Absolute Solutions Group, Global Interactive Technologies, Global Service Providers, The Credit Voice, Live Agent Response 1 LLC, Arcagen, American Innovative Concepts, Unique Information Services, Michael Hilgar, Gary Martin, and Joseph Settecase.
The attorneys general in Indiana and North Dakota previously brought cases against several of those defendants alleging they made illegal robocalls and violated do-not-call laws in connection with calls about medical-alert systems.
A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order and froze the assets of the defendants on Jan. 7 and a hearing is scheduled for Thursday on the government's request for a preliminary injunction.
"This enterprise is now at an end," Baker said.
I wish I could say the same for the calls.
Sandy Strauss, the North Whitehall man who first tipped me off to the scam last spring, told me he got one as recently as Monday.
"I get them all the time," he said. "It's ridiculous."
While Strauss is pretty sure the calls he gets are robocalls, three other people called the Watchdog within the past week to complain about getting calls from live telemarketers. They said they got the calls around the time authorities filed their case. The calls followed the same script as the previous ones.
Chuck Ballard of Upper Milford Township said his wife received the most recent call about 10 days ago. The caller insisted on scheduling a time to deliver the medical-alert device. His wife eventually hung up.
"We had ordered no such device," Ballard said.
A 73-year-old Allentown woman didn't hang up when she should have. She provided her credit card to a caller early last week who told her someone had bought her the system.
The caller said she also qualified for free groceries. The woman eventually was told there would be a monthly fee of $38. She hesitated but provided her credit card, then was hung up on. She never got the alarm that was supposed to be delivered last Thursday.
She learned Wednesday that her card was charged for $38. She intends to dispute it.
According to court papers, the companies and individuals named in last week's lawsuit made the calls on behalf of Lifewatch, a medical alert provider from New York that paid the defendants a commission for each new customer they signed up. Lifewatch and related corporations paid them more than $13 million in commissions in less than two years.
"While the extent to which Lifewatch is aware of defendants' violative business practices is unclear, defendants have certainly brought Lifewatch a lot of business," authorities said in court records.
Lifewatch was not sued by the FTC and the Florida attorney general. But it has been sued by a competitor, Life Alert Emergency Response, which alleges Lifewatch used its trademarked phrase "I've fallen and I can't get up" in telemarketing sales calls.
In court papers, Lifewatch denied the allegations. Life Alert Emergency Response's lawsuit, filed in federal court in California, also names several of the defendants sued by the FTC and the Florida attorney general in this case.
If you have received these calls, you can file a complaint with the FTC at http://www.ftc.gov or 877-382-4357.
The Watchdog is published Thursdays and Sundays. Contact me at email@example.com, 610-841-2364 or The Morning Call, 101 N. Sixth St., Allentown, PA, 18101. I'm on Twitter @mcwatchdog and Facebook at Morning Call Watchdog.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun