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Be cautious when divulging information

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By The Staff

Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer answers questions about aging issues.

Question: My mother called me the other day wanting to know what I thought about a great program that an insurance agent called her about. The agent told her that they would give her either a motorized scooter or $1,000 if she completed a survey on health-related questions and provided some personal information. When she said that she would fill out a survey, an agent came by her house to notarize the survey and have her sign a release. She told them that she would have to talk it over with me first since I have power of attorney. Is this legitimate? Why do they need to have this survey and release notarized?

Answer: Being cautious is always the best approach when it comes to anything regarding personal information like Social Security numbers, Medicare numbers and financial information. The agent contacting your mother may be legitimate, but looking into this further is a good idea.

Senior groups across the state are being targeted by organizations that are gathering detailed information that may put our seniors at risk. Company representatives ask for highly personal, confidential information including Social Security numbers, Medicare numbers, and extensive health and financial information.

It has been reported that representatives of the organizations offer seniors large sums of money and, in some cases, other durable items such as scooters or motorized wheelchairs to participate in health surveys. The participant must sign an irrevocable durable power of attorney, which is not legal in South Carolina, but seniors don't know that. This power of attorney allows the company to access their medical records for the rest of their lives and may allow access to other information, including their death certificate. The companies say that the information is going to be used for longevity information.

Following are some of their approaches:

n Representatives contact churches and senior centers and ask to put on presentations

n Seniors are offered significant amounts of money and incentives to participate in a survey

n Seniors are asked to disclose highly personal, confidential information

n Seniors are required to sign an irrevocable, durable power of attorney

n Participants agree to allow full access to medical records forever

n Information can be passed on to other unknown parties

n Participants cannot control how the information will be used

n Disclosure of the requested information can put seniors at risk for exploitation and possible identity theft

Some of these businesses may be promoting Stranger Originated Life Insurance practices, also known as "STOLI" or "death futures." Information is collected and then sold to speculators who take out life insurance on the individuals who participate. When the individual dies, the speculator collects. Speculating on the death of an individual may not be illegal, although it is certainly distasteful to treat death as a commodity. A concern is that there may be other uses of the information that can put the senior at risk of financial exploitation.

The Department of Consumer Affairs and the Attorney General's Office are aware of these solicitations and they are researching the companies and the practices. Until they can ascertain the facts and the legitimacy of the companies who are making these presentations, we recommend extreme caution in allowing access to groups and facilities for solicitation.

The Office on Aging has not endorsed any of these organizations' efforts and takes no position regarding their legitimacy; however, being informed as to what is going on in the world is the best form of protection.

If anyone asks you for personal information, ask yourself why. In most cases the reasons are legitimate, but when it comes to personal and financial security you are better safe than sorry. If you fall victim to a party that is illegitimate, one thing is for sure, you will have to spend a great deal of time and possibly money clearing your name and repairing the damage that has been done.

Also, if you are told that a government agency has endorsed or approved a product, contact that agency to verify the endorsement before you proceed.

If you feel that you may have been contacted by a company with less than honorable intentions or may be a victim of fraud, you can contact the Department of Consumer Affairs toll free at (800) 922-1594 or visit its Web site http://www.scconsumer.gov.

If you have questions regarding senior issues, please contact the Lt. Governor's Office on Aging at (803) 734-9900 or toll free outside the Columbia area at (800) 868-9095 or visit our Web site www.aging.sc.gov.

Andre Bauer is lieutenant governor for South Carolina.