Seminars will help avoid fraud

MARQUETTE – In our national post-recession climate, deceptive or predatory financial practices are common.

In 2013, according to Consumer Reports, the top four categories for consumer complaints were identity theft, debt collection, banks and lenders, and impostor scams. American consumers reported losing over $1.6 billion to fraud overall in 2013, according to the Federal Trade Commission’s annual report on consumer complaints.

And residents of the Upper Peninsula can be targets – particularly senior citizens in regards to estate planning decisions, said attorney Jim Steward, resident of Ishpeming who has worked in elder law and estate planning for 40 years and was the second attorney in Michigan to be certified by the National Elder Law Foundation.

Steward is volunteering with about 10 other Michigan attorneys from the U.P. to present hour-long seminars to inform and empower senior citizens about estate and financial planning. Organized by the State Bar of Michigan and titled, “A Living Trust Education: Who Should You Trust? Avoiding Estate Planning Mistakes,” the seminars will take place free of charge at various times on Wednesday, Aug. 6 at 11 senior and community centers in seven counties across the U.P.

“The senior population – the over-70, over-75 group in particular – especially in our area, (is) used to trusting people,” Steward said. “They’re used to having people tell them the truth. They’re not used to having people lie to them and sell them a bill of goods.”

He said this makes them vulnerable to buying financial products that oftentimes aren’t appropriate for them from salespeople under highly-profitable commission by insurance companies. Small towns are often targeted specifically for this reason, Steward said.

People who are retired or are looking to retire face critical decisions about estate planning and future investment, he said.

“And that’s where these various salesmen try to contact these people, either through an ad or direct mailing, and they try to get them to come to a free lunch or free seminar,” Steward said. “And it starts out as informative, but it basically ends up being a sales pitch of whatever they’re trying to sell.”

Which is usually a complicated insurance product, mainly annuities, Steward said. An annuity is an insurance policy or investment that pays someone a fixed amount of money each year.

“You have to make sure an investment is right for your situation,” Steward said. “And the salesperson is trying to convince you that it’s right for basically everyone, and that it’s a way to avoid the horrible scenarios described by these salespeople, which are often at least overstated and, in some respects, downright false. And the audience isn’t going to know that. So one of the goals of the State Bar of Michigan presentation that’s coming up here is to try to alert people to those problems and to be aware and to be on guard and not be victimized.”

Seniors, as well as their loved ones, can benefit from the seminars, Steward said.

“It’s a really nice service that they provide our seniors,” Negaunee Senior Center Director Kristy Basolo-Malmsten said. “And it’s really nice that they use local attorneys, so that people know who they can turn to for help.”

The reason the bar uses local attorneys is partly practical, Steward said, since they have a shorter distance to go and it allows all of the presentations to occur on the same day.

“And (the attorneys are) often more familiar with the local folks, and the local customs, and some of the questions that might come up,” Steward said.

Steward said that in his practice, about half of his clients over 70, and some younger, are people impacted by these annuity and investment scams.

“I see this over and over in my practice,” he said. “People end up paying thousands of dollars to get their own money back.”

Legislation to diminish these practices is often blocked or too soft, due to the power of the insurance lobby, Steward noted.

“To rely on information given at free lunches is very dangerous,” he said.

Steward, who is scheduled to speak at the Forsyth Township Senior Center, said he may have a scheduling conflict, in which case elder law attorney Angela Swanberg will take his place.

They have worked closely together on a number of elder law issues and, in May, published, “Medicaid Estate Recovery Update: What You Need to Know,” in the Probate and Estate Planning Section of the Michigan Bar Journal. The article covers this and related topics and can be read online at www.michbar.org/journal/pdf/pdf4article2375.pdf.

Mary Wardell can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248.