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Charlotte Sun

Tuesday, May 5, 2009
David Morris

In front of more than 100 people at the Cultural Center of Charlotte County, Donna Cornell, internal control officer for Charlotte State Bank, waved a stack of documents amounting to almost half a million dollars in counterfeit checks stopped for processing by the bank last year. It was a critical reminder that every day, hundreds of Floridians fall victim to financial fraud, especially seniors.

Charlotte State Bank sponsored Thursday's free public forum featuring representatives from Florida's Department of Financial Services, the Area Agency on Aging for Southwest Florida, and AARP. The outreach program was part of the Safeguard Our Seniors Task Force created last September by Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink.

Audience members were warned repeatedly to be extremely cautious attending any type of "free lunch" investment seminar, usually involving the sale of annuities or reverse mortgages. A law passed last year makes it an unfair or deceptive insurance practice for someone to use designations or titles -- like certified elder planning specialist -- that falsely imply that he has special financial knowledge or training. Additionally, insurance agents are now required to objectively determine whether an annuity investment is suitable for senior consumers.

It was highly recommended never to go alone to one of these seminars, to ask many questions, and not to be pressured into doing anything not fully understood. Also, before making any investment, verify whether the individual is properly licensed and check complaints by calling the DFS Consumer Helpline at 800-342-2762. Then seek the advice of an impartial financial adviser. Doug Heinlen, president of AARP Florida, also recruited attendees for a new "secret shopper" program in which they will anonymously attend financial lunch seminars and report any suspect procedures.

As the official state unit on aging, representatives from Florida's Department of Elder Affairs explained how the agency helps to provide essential services and support to seniors and those acting on their behalf. The dedicated Elder Helpline, 800-96-ELDER (35337), directs callers to people that can help with everything from legal aid to financial exploitation. It also offers one-on-one counseling for Medicare beneficiaries, including health plan choices, prescription assistance resources and appeal rights.

Finally, Ann Proie, regional ombudsman for Florida's Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program, discussed how the program advocates for residents' rights, health, safety and welfare. As part of its efforts, the agency performs annual assessments of each licensed long-term care facility in the state. Those assessments are a great resource to help make an informed decision when choosing one. Call 888-831-0404 for more information.

In the end, the key to protection is to be an informed and educated consumer and know about available resources. As part of that effort, go to the Sun's Web site, www.sunnewspapers.net, and click "News Features" on the left side. Then click "David Morris: Consumer Advocate."
There you'll find valuable information under the "Consumer Help: Useful Tips & Resources" link.
One of those useful tips is to shred. Personal data -- including Social Security and credit card numbers -- as well as addresses, phone numbers and dates of birth, is the fruit of the trade that con artists covet most in the world of identity fraud.

As part of a "Greening Our Future" open house, the Charlotte County Environmental Campus will offer free paper shredding by Secure Document Destruction of up to four banker-sized boxes from 9 a.m. until noon Thursday at 25550 Harborview Road, Port Charlotte. Additional boxes are $10 each. For more information about the event, call 941-764-4360.

Do you have a consumer issue or problem? Contact David Morris c/o The Sun, 23170 Harborview Road, Port Charlotte, FL 33980; or e-mail dmorris@sun-herald.com.