Stetson hosted Consumer Protection Fair with AARP

AARP volunteers
Volunteers from AARP Tampa Bay helped local seniors sign up for the Do Not Call Registry and other services to help block junk mail during the Consumer Protection Fair at Stetson.

“There is no rule book to retiring or getting old,” said Marilyn Izor, a retired nurse from St. Petersburg.

The 70-year-old attended a Consumer Protection Fair on Sept. 11, 2019, at Stetson University College of Law. The school hosted the event in partnership with AARP Tampa Bay as part of AARP’s National Day of Service.

Izor said she left the event armed with plenty of notes and great information to help her on the “journey of getting old.”

Attendees had the opportunity to shred sensitive documents and consult expert speakers on consumer protection issues, as well as probate, power of attorney and other important topics.  AARP employees helped them sign up for the National Do Not Call Registry and various ways to opt out of junk mail. Stetson law students assisted with legal technology training, including how to spot dangerous email attachments and suspicious web links.

“You can be really smart and still get caught, so you need to stay informed of the latest tricks,” said Jeff Johnson, state director for AARP.

The organization hosts multiple service events all around the state, each with a different theme. In the Panhandle, for example, they worked on Hurricane Michael relief. In Gulfport, the partnership with Stetson made perfect sense, given the school’s well-known Center for Excellence in Elder Law and strong advocacy programs.

Professor Morgan with Detective Brian Kronz
Stetson Professor Rebecca C. Morgan introduces St. Petersburg Police Detective Brian Kronz during the Consumer Protection Fair on Sept. 11, 2019, at Stetson University College of Law.

Stay informed

Detective Brian Kronz with the St. Petersburg Police Department was one of the event speakers. A sobering fact from his law enforcement experience: 90 percent of the time when seniors are a victim of theft, it was perpetrated by someone in a position of trust. Home health aides and unscrupulous family members are common culprits.

“Identity theft happens every two seconds,” he said, adding that Florida has the largest number of identity theft victims in the nation.

Identity theft is just one of many common crimes committed against the elderly. You can read more about the most popular scams and how to avoid them on the AARP website, but key red flags for exploitation include: unusual bank account activity; missing checks, credit cards, valuables or important documents; an unusual change in beneficiaries; or a new “best friend” suddenly appearing, Kronz said.

Seniors can protect themselves by selecting someone with integrity to act as their power of attorney, always speaking with a trusted advisor before making any kind of financial decision, shredding personal documents and mail, regularly checking their credit report via, scrutinizing all financial statements, and securing valuable possessions. Kronz also encouraged all seniors to feel free to call their local law enforcement agency if they ever feel unsure about a situation, person or otherwise threatened.

Stop running from aging and make a plan

Stetson alumna Stephanie Edwards, of Edwards Elder Law in St. Petersburg, discussed types of long-term care, from home health to assisted living to skilled nursing facilities, and how to pay for it. Too many people refuse to think about the possibility of needing care and fail to plan.

“Fate likes chaos, and fate likes crisis,” she said.

Consider these numbers:

  • Companion care for a few hours during the day can range $18 per hour and up;
  • Assisted living facilities can cost $2,500 to $4,000 per month;
  • Memory care facilities (when the need for physical care is limited but because of dementia or Alzheimer’s, more supervision is needed) can run $3,500 to $5,500 per month; and
  • Skilled nursing homes can range from $8,000 to $12,000 per month.

Seniors without a plan for long-term care could find themselves facing out-of-pocket expenses that their retirement nest egg doesn’t stretch far enough to cover. Payment options include:

  1. Ensuring have you have enough cash savings set aside;
  2. Buying long-term care insurance (though fewer companies are offering it these days, and it can be expensive); or
  3. Utilizing Medicare or Medicaid when the time comes.
  4. The VA also has a VA Aid and Attendance program for wartime vets and their surviving spouse – something not many know about. Stetson’s Veterans Advocacy Clinic may be able to help eligible veterans apply.

Many people find they fall between making too much for qualify for Medicaid, but they don’t have enough in savings to pay for private care, Edwards said. The VA and other government programs have strict rules regarding how to protect your financial assets while still qualifying for services. An experienced attorney can help you navigate these programs and plan for the future.

photo of audience members
The Consumer Protection Fair at Stetson University College of Law drew about 50 seniors from the Tampa Bay community, as well as representatives from Pinellas County Government, Bay Area Legal Services, and the Attorney General’s Office.

Get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations

Stetson alumnus Will Lucius, director of Special Needs Trust at Raymond James, agreed that most people are more concerned about what happens to their assets after death and fail to plan for care they may need while still alive. That includes not only funds, but a legal plan that identifies someone to make financial and health care decisions for you should you become unable to do so.  

Power of Attorney for finances generally grants authority to an agent to act on your behalf for financial decisions. It is important to select someone trustworthy and ethical, not just default to your oldest child, for example, especially if he or she has a history of bad financial decisions.

“Financial Power of Attorney is a very good tool to have,” Lucius said, adding an important caveat: “It really can be a license to steal if it’s in the wrong hands.”

People who don’t have a valid durable power of attorney and become unable to make their financial health care decisions could find a court-appointed guardian or conservator charged with making their financial and health care decisions. Other options include trusts and joint ownership. An attorney who specializes in estate planning can help you identify and plan for your future needs. The worst alternative is having no plan at all, he said.

Be wary of premade online forms granting Power of Attorney or other legal rights, as they may not be right for your particular needs and need to be signed and witness properly. A licensed attorney should always review such documents to ensure they are valid. Wills, advanced health care directives, and Power of Attorney documents should be kept in a secure place, but you should also be sure a trusted family member knows where they can be found when the time comes.

“Be sure to discuss your plans with your loved ones so they know your wishes,” he said.

mock trial
A student on Stetson’s Trial Team questioned the “witness” (a.k.a. Professor Julia Metts) during a mock trial as part of the event.

Don’t be afraid to report suspicious activity

To round out the day, members of Stetson’s prestigious Trial Team conducted a mock trial for the audience that simulated a common scam on the elderly.

  • The scenario: a direct mailing company owner was on trial for mail fraud. He designed, printed and distributed a flier informing recipients they had won a free car. In reality, when people dialed the number, they were coerced into divulging their personal information and then swindled for money.
  • The questions posed by the simulated court proceedings: Was the mailing company owner at fault? Was he part of a greater scheme? Or should only the people behind the scam be held accountable?

Interestingly, event attendees acting as the jury found the company owner not guilty. They placed blame with the faceless people who perpetrated the scam. But as Stetson law professors Robert Flowers and Julie Metts pointed out, while the company owner may not have been directly responsible for people getting swindled, he played a role. Reporting his involvement to law enforcement gives them one more piece of the puzzle, one more clue to be able to track down the real guilty parties. Not only that, but it helps law enforcement and legal officials create a database of information that could help solve future crimes.

  • The lesson for seniors: Even if your individual case is not solved, the information from it may lead to arrests and prosecution in the future, so don’t hesitate to report the information to law enforcement, no matter how small or embarrassing it may seem.