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CFO Sink, AARP Team up to Find Greater Protections for Senior Investors in Florida

11/14/2008

CONTACT:  
Tara Klimek or Kevin Cate                                                                                                       850-413-2842

Solutions discussed during second meeting of Sink’s Safeguard Our Seniors (SOS) Task Force

FT. MYERS – With seniors age 65 and older expected to soon represent 30 percent of Florida’s population coupled with an upward trend in complaints to her office about financial products such as annuities, Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink challenged members of the Safeguard Our Seniors (SOS) Task Force to consider meaningful financial protections for senior investors.  The task force was created to help better protect Florida seniors against financial fraud, with an immediate focus on annuity fraud.

“The number of complaints from Florida seniors about annuities has nearly quadrupled in the last three years,” said Sink, whose department has opened 474 investigations on financial fraud involving seniors, with 70 percent of cases related to annuity and life insurance transactions. “Better financial protections for our growing population of senior residents and tougher consequences for those who defraud our seniors demand our immediate attention.”

Teaming up with CFO Sink Thursday was AARP Florida representative Bentley Lipscomb, former secretary of the Florida Department of Elder Affairs.

“Over the last several decades, Florida has spent a lot of money and energy encouraging seniors to retire to ‘paradise’ here in Florida.  With the current market conditions, we have an even greater responsibility to protect them from financial fraud as they look for ways to invest their hard-earned savings during retirement,” said Lipscomb, who shared information about AARP’s new “No Free Lunch” program initiative. The program recruits senior citizens to attend and report on high-pressure sales tactics for investments at free lunch and dinner seminars advertised under the guise of helping seniors learn how to grow and protect their retirement savings.

Sink and task force members also heard from Anne Ridings, a guardian with Lutheran Services, who recounted her experience with Joseph Seale, a former resident of Ft. Myers. In 2006, following the sale of Seale’s home, a life insurance agent sold three annuities with a 15-year surrender period to Seale, 85 years old at the time, that tied up all of his liquid assets. Months later, Seale was hospitalized and Ridings was appointed his guardian by the courts.  Sink’s department was contacted by Ridings to get help for Seale who was about to be evicted from the nursing home because he had no funds to cover his expenses. The department was able to recover more than $256,000 for Seale, representing the original investment without penalty, which helped Seale remain in the nursing home with proper care.  The agent, who made over $13,000 in commissions selling inappropriate annuities to Seale, had his license revoked by the Department.

Sink and task force members heard from Erika Dine, an elder law attorney from Sarasota, about the difficulties in prosecuting financial fraud against seniors due to advanced age and health-related concerns.   Members also heard from Scott Stolz, President of Planning Corporation of America, a division of Raymond James Financial.  Three years ago Raymond James set product criteria for the indexed annuities it offered.  That criteria included a limit on both the length (10 years) and size (10%) of the surrender charges.  According to Stolz, they have yet to receive a single client complaint on any of the $150 million in indexed annuities they have sold.  Part of the problem, Stolz said, is that some indexed annuities sold within the marketplace have surrender periods as long as 20 years and as high as 20 years and 20 percent.  Such contracts could not possible be deemed suitable for seniors in their late 70s and early 80s.

According to Sink, there are several solutions that appear to be consistent themes for better protecting senior investors including:

  • Tougher criminal penalties for those who are convicted of annuity fraud;
  • Stricter monitoring of sales agents by insurance companies;
  • More aggressive education of industry, law enforcement, state attorneys, judges and the public;
  • Greater oversight of and higher standards for obtaining certifications or designations to sell annuities; and
  • Creating an independent alternative dispute resolution process to resolve disputes involving agents’ sale of inappropriate products to seniors.  

Sink said recovering funds for senior victims is typically difficult and prosecution can take up to a year or longer while the senior struggles with no access to needed funds. Last session, CFO Sink advocated for legislation to increase the penalties against criminals who commit annuity fraud, but the Legislature failed to pass the bill. Without stronger penalties, it is incredibly difficult for state attorneys to devote the resources necessary to prosecute these offenders.

The SOS Task Force is scheduled to meet again in early January in West Palm Beach.  In addition to considering solutions to better protect seniors against annuity fraud, task force members will also deliberate ways to safeguard seniors against problems associated with Stranger-Owned Life Insurance (STOLIs) products and reverse mortgages.

To learn more about the SOS Task Force or what to consider when purchasing annuities, visit www.flseniors.net. Floridians who believe they may have been victims of annuity fraud should call 1-877-MY-FL-CFO or log on to www.MyFloridaCFO.com to file a complaint.