Note: This post references the Washington Post report published on 9/13/2015 at 9:06 PM, written by Terrence McCoy.  You can read the article here.

Such reforms are not extreme or radical reactions to problems being blown out of proportion.  Anyone involved in the secondary market knows about the big issues: court scraping, forum shopping, deal poaching, aggressive solicitation often in violation of TCPA regulations.  Some in the secondary market will cry foul and say that these reforms in Maryland are a result of nothing more than sensationalism; however, the reality is that the reason it all sounds so much like media sensationalism is not because they’re actually being blown out of proportion, it’s because they’re actually, shockingly, true.  The truth is that annuitants have every right to be angry.  They’re being relentlessly targeted and harassed.

These changes are a good first step.  Annuitants should show up to their own hearings.  They should be fully aware of what they’re doing and the possible implications of it.  They should seek real independent professional advice, and they should know if they’re doing the right thing at the right time.  Perhaps buying a new luxury car isn’t appropriate… but avoiding bankruptcy is.  Not getting hammered by overwhelming medical bills is too.  Life happens.  IPAs having to show up at hearings now too will certainly make the apparent quid pro quo of IPAs with factoring companies more difficult too.

The structured settlement industry should be aware of who is doing something unacceptable; which companies are conducting themselves inappropriately.  Factoring has a legitimate purpose for those in need of liquidity and we all want to be the company that you turn to in assisting your clients.  That said, companies with a clean, ethical track record should be chosen to consult with annuitants who have legitimate needs when considering a factoring transaction.  Yes, I do mean Bentzen Financial.  Those of you reading this are aware of our stance and our record.  Referring to us means you’re avoiding the headlines because we keep our brokers and annuitants happy; no one ends up in the news because our business as usual is based on positive results for everyone, not just our bottom line.  How?  We don’t scrape.  We don’t aggressively solicit.  We don’t break any rules.  We treat our brokers and annuitants with honesty and respect; nothing more or less.  We do our jobs properly and ethically.  It’s really not as hard as some companies might lead people to believe.

 

See our latest advertisement from our YouTube Channel:

Posted

It’s a sad day when victims of lead paint exposure are targeted for sales.  No matter the justification for giving these victims money, especially when most are cognitively impaired, a person really has to suspend good judgment to think, “Sure, Joe can’t read or write well, and doesn’t have a driver’s license… but hey, he wants a car and he has a structured settlement… who am I to say no?  Big money!”

The average annuitant has a hard enough time making ends meet when faced with the arduous task of dealing with the constant barrage of sales solicitations.  The flagrant violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), meant to prevent this sort of thing from happening, add insult to eventual injury when an annuitant finally breaks down and signs on the dotted line.  That is to say, they’ve signed a bad deal that’s probably ill advised to begin with.  Why?  To pad the line of an aggressive factoring company.

Factoring a structured settlement has a time and place.  For some, it’s a genuinely good option, especially if the structured payment stream isn’t the sole income of a person or family.  For others, however, cashing out a structured settlement is not just ill advised – but disastrous.  The Washington Post article exemplifies the latter, and we’re sick to our stomachs having read it.  Nothing like that should ever happen in this industry.

How can business go on when actors like this are effectively defecating on our industry?  Take the reason for why Access Funding allegedly targets lead paint victims, in particular: because they’re easy to find.  Court scraping 101 at its worst: a few easy keystrokes in a court search and you’ve got yourself a potential treasure trove of money.  The best part?  The annuitants are living hard lives, aren’t usually well educated, and are susceptible to a con job.  This shameful strategy for ‘easy’ money should not exist, but with the ease of court scraping software at hand – what is there to do?  At this point it’s worth noting that the perusal of court records for sales purposes is almost universally prohibited – but it happens all the time anyway.  This is the ethical dilemma facing our industry.

There are two solutions, and only one with much chance of success at this point in time:

1.)    Software/databases used for court sleuthing purposes need to locate, track, and punish violators of terms of use (no sleuthing for sales).

2.)    Legally imposed censorship of personal identification information in court documents to prevent sales sleuthing to begin with.

The purpose of being able to search through court records is explicitly for non-commercial research and personal reference.  Under no circumstances are court records permitted to be used for profit-bearing purposes.  Needless to say, few actually follow this rule; there’s just far too much profit in ignoring this rule.

It’s time to face facts: no one cares to follow rules that inconvenience profit making.  The industry clearly has no interest in self-policing; there is only one option left: government intervention and regulation.  It’s a dirty suggestion and no one likes the idea… but if it saves the industry from itself, and annuitants along with it… then it’s worth it.

Posted

Knowingly violating the Telephone Consumer Protection Act is a kind of gambling.  Some annuitants will give in to constant phone solicitation and give the offending company what they want.  The downside for the TCPA offender is that someone may not give in, and worse, will fight back.  On July 21st, 2015, in West Palm Beach, FL, a class action suit was brought against Novation Capital / Novation Ventures for alleged violations of the TCPA, including the use of a “robodialer” to assist in the facilitation of sales calls.  In other words, the party has ended; annuitants have had enough.  Someone is likely to receive a swift slap.

We are not at all surprised that a suit of this kind finally happened.  We’re just surprised it took this long!  It certainly seemed inevitable to us.  If enough annuitants are pushed around, and enough educational material is out there for them to find – it’s just a matter of time before annuitants stand up for themselves.  And really, who can blame them?  How many of us just love speaking with telemarketers?  We don’t.  No one does.  Even Congress, an institution known for its glacial pacing in all things, almost unanimously agreed, with the passing of the TCPA and its subsequent amendments, that frequent phone calls to one’s phone by companies with no prior business relationship and absolutely no consent by the recipient is unwarranted, undesirable, and constitutes a violation of personal privacy.  Therefore, violations of the TCPA are punishable by up to $1,500 per phone call.  The penalty for knowingly defying this law, if caught, can be severe.

We at Bentzen Financial make no effort to hide the message to promote ourselves as the small, referral based company, lone-wolfing the straight-and-narrow in this business.  We pride ourselves in being alone in our unwavering stance for no high pressure sales calls, no big-time advertising, and absolutely no court scraping.  We help annuitants when they want it, not when we’ve called them enough times that they finally cave in.  Not harassing them with high pressure sales calls is a given to us.  Like you, we will follow the progress of this case with great interest.

Posted

Advertising: how businesses spread the word about the products and services they offer in the hopes of gaining customers.  It ranges from cheap word-of-mouth referrals to massive, expensive, mass-media campaigns on TV, radio, the Internet, and more.  For factoring companies, this isn’t as simple as Burger King showing us a juicy new burger from various angles.  It’s a matter of stimulating the need for cash. NOW.

We see it in the most popular advertising online: the brilliantly jingled 877-CASH NOW commercials that ran on TV and radio, featuring opera.  It was catchy, pertinent, and funny to the point of absurd; in other words, you remembered it.  For all factoring needs, JG Wentworth would burst through your skull with dramatic, operatic flair.  For structure brokers, this has been an oft-noted irritant post-structure.  Those brokers willing to provide referrals regarding which factoring companies they’d recommend for quotes are simply thrown out the window in favor of the direct-to-consumer advertising campaigns of Wentworth and other giants; mostly because the brokers themselves aren’t being contacted anymore for their input.  Is this fair?  For big factoring companies, certainly; they have the capital to advertise, so why not take advantage of it?  But what are the downsides for brokers and annuitants?  These are two-fold:

1.)    Advertising is expensive.  But more than this, keeping staff on hand to handle the influx of inquiries as a result of such expensive advertising is also expensive.  This cost cannot be easily absorbed by the corporation and must naturally flow to the consumer; in the case of factoring companies – the annuitants.  This results in annuitants getting lower rates of return on their factoring transactions.

2.)    It cuts out structure brokers.  By appealing directly to potential customers, advertising by Wentworth and other companies has severely impacted the professional and referral importance of structured settlement brokers.  Annuitants no longer have a need to contact their brokers or attorneys, in many cases, since they already know who to call if they’re in need (or tempted by) cash now advertising.  This distances annuitants from those who know best if factoring a transaction is wise or necessary: the brokers themselves.

So, what can be done to address these issues?

1.)    Know who doesn’t conduct mass advertising directly to annuitants.  Those who aren’t playing the expensive advertising game aren’t going to pass on costly inflated rates which ultimately short-change the annuitants.  Annuitants who decide to factor their structures are going to do so if their minds are made up – wouldn’t it be better for them to get the best rates possible?  Annuitants just need to be given the opportunity to speak with someone who knows where to turn beyond what they may see on TV.  They should be speaking to their brokers again; and these brokers should be referring to smaller, specialty factoring companies.

2.)    Direct-to-consumer advertising is a fact of life in every business, but this shouldn’t necessarily be one of them.  Brokers know the ins and outs of this business far better than annuitants, especially given that it was the broker who put together the structure to begin with.  Wouldn’t it be nice to be involved in the process of potentially taking them apart?  It may not even be the best thing for an annuitant to do!  Brokers input is important.  Stay involved beyond the structure.  Let annuitants know to contact you before jumping on the cash now bandwagon they see and hear on TV, and refer them to a trusted business with a record of good rates and ethical practices.

There’s no question that having transparency in government is a good thing.  Access to public records for the purpose of assuring that government is not engaged in immoral, unethical, and illegal activities is a given in this country.  What is not a given, however, is the use of public records for purposes other than the watchdog function.  For an in-depth look into the privacy side of this issue, visit: https://www.privacyrights.org/ar/onlinepubrecs.htm.

When individuals or companies use access to public records for their own gain, particularly when the goal is to profit from personal identification information (PII), it is a moral, ethical, and legal quagmire.  If such information ultimately leads to stalking, it is blatantly illegal.  For purely research?  Perfectly fine.  But what about greed?  A short cut for profits?  This is a shaky ground for legality.  On the one hand, the spirit of the law indicates that court record availability is a matter of government transparency.  This transparency is considered desirable in government to make sure it is not violating anyone’s rights.  On the other hand, transparency is not meant to permit or enable otherwise illicit activities, such as identify theft, or harassment per stipulations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA).  But does it permit PII to be used for sales purposes?  This is a gray area.

One could argue that any research of court records that includes PII naturally leads to the potential of sales; it’s hard to argue the potentiality of this argument.  The primary issue, though, is not whether such information could be used, as it’s quite obvious that it could, but whether it will be used.  This is determined by motive.  In other words, what motivations would a person or company have to obtain records containing the PII?  Given the natural profit motive of free enterprise, the most logical and common response would be because it’ll ultimately result in the company making money.  But is the company making money because it’s using the PII explicitly?  Or is it merely selling or trading this information?  Which is okay?  Are either of those options okay?

If sales are going to be conducted by phone, and a reasonable person could conclude that the person on the receiving end of the phone call does not want to be bothered, then the call itself is a violation of the aforementioned TCPA.  This is not okay, simply on the basis of legality.  Beyond legality, there’s a sniff test akin to the golden rule.  Suppose you were on the receiving end of a solicitation that directly resulted from someone getting your PII from a court record.  How do you react to the solicitation?  Are you hostile?  Are you okay with the idea that you will likely receive countless more phone calls as a new norm, even after demanding to be left alone?  If your answer is “No!” then consider the effects of court scraping beyond legality and ethics.

Is contact as a result of court scraping a nuisance?  Yes.  Even salesmen engaged in the practice must acknowledge this.  Does it always work?  Of course not.  Salesmen using information gathered by scraping know that it comes down to a numbers game: out of a large number of calls, only a small minority of them may be productive.  That’s just the reality of sales.  The difference between this and more traditional methods, however, is that no one signed up to be on a court scraper list.  Receiving solicitations by this method purely results from creative greed; the Information Age has made acquiring PII quick and cost effective.  For pure cost-benefit it is a natural boon for any company.  The downside is that engaging in such activities makes you loathed.

Recall that using PII for stalking is illegal because stalking itself is a criminal activity.  Would one classify relentless solicitations directly resulting from looking up PII from court records as a form of stalking?  Do these solicitors not obtain information and seek contact without invitation?  E-stalking, or stalking using the Internet, is criminal, much as one would stalk someone physically down the street.

Isn’t court scraping merely a more sophisticated method of e-stalking?

Here’s the only, barely valid excuse heard to date to that question: “Well no, because a person isn’t being solicited to do them harm… just to make money off of them!”  Taking harm as the undesirable result of stalking, we arrive at the final point…  Does the potential financial ruin of annuitants that are coerced into factoring a portion or more of their payment streams constitute harm?  Or must harm be physically inflicted?  One might turn this argument around and say, “But no one is forcing the annuitant into factoring his or her structure!”  That’s certainly true, but there is the matter of how the annuitant is approached.  Did the annuitant, in sound mind and of his or her own volition, seek to do so as a result of unique and pressing circumstances that necessitate factoring a transaction?  Or, did a salesman contact the annuitant and use a sales pitch to make such a transaction, regardless of the annuitant’s circumstances?  The first scenario is perfectly fine; the second is not.  Context in this industry matters a great deal, and as has been said now many times before, ‘selling’ factoring isn’t like selling waffle makers.  This is a life changing financial decision that cannot be taken lightly.  As many annuitants have indicated during the harassment investigation, no one should have their PII when it comes to their financial situation unless they reach out first.  We agree.

Not all those who sleuth court records or retrieve legal documents should fall under scrutiny.  We do not advocate for an end to anyone’s ability to search court records; there are many arenas where this is perfectly appropriate and should be left alone.  We do advocate the censorship of PII for recipients of structured settlement annuities.  In short: leave them alone.

Support annuitant privacy by signing the petition.  Click here to sign.

The following is a review and unveiling of each of the two new sites. Both are part of the same movement we’re starting which we call, collectively, the Ethics Initiative. We’ve always believed that business should be conducted in as clean a manner as possible, and have always striven to do so. We are dismayed at the level of prominence that scraping, in particular, has reached in an industry that doesn’t need the bad press; and more importantly, we’re hoping you’ll join us in trying to clean it up.

FactoringEthics.com is dedicated to the collection and dissemination of information directly pertinent to maintaining cleanliness in the factoring industry. Relevant regulations, statutes, etc. are posted and explained in order to arm anyone who wants to prepare themselves for potential harassment by unscrupulous actors in the factoring industry. For example, brokers and annuitants should be aware of and well versed in the existence and application of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which is clear regarding the solicitation of potential clientele by phone-using businesses – and really, what business isn’t using a telephone? Violating the TCPA has clear consequences, but like most things in government, the question isn’t the intent or application of relevant regulation, but the enforceability. Simply put: no one can enforce anything if no one’s reporting wrongdoing. As far as the government is concerned, if there’s no squawking, there’s no problem. It’s time to squawk.

Another aspect of FactoringEthics.com that we’re pleased to announce is an oft-overlooked reality of the industry: there are many aliases in use. At first glance one might say, “Wow, what a competitive marketplace!” Well hold on, just because there are a bunch of different names being thrown out there doesn’t mean they’re competitors. This site will collect and expose all factoring companies and their known aliases. We do not seek to rate any of them nor do we seek to dissuade their use, per se – but we do believe that transparency in the secondary market can only help. There’s no reason that legitimate business will be harmed by exposing these aliases. The notion of “Let the buyer beware!” echoes true here; but with this information in hand, brokers and annuitants can both breathe a little easier knowing who’s-who in a seemingly crowded marketplace.

StopCashCalls.com is dedicated specifically to annuitants and brokers who want to have a more active role in standing against anyone who violates the TCPA. We’re working with an attorney to establish a class-action suit against anyone found to be in violation of the TCPA with an annuitant. If you’re an annuitant and you’ve been receiving constant phone calls and you want them to stop – say no more, sign up and provide a testimonial and you’ll be added to the list of people to contact for reference. Only if you’re comfortable taking the next step by joining in the class-action suit will we share your information with any attorney that the Project is working with. You’ll call the shots. We’ll help get you the tools for your freedom from harassment.

If you, a broker, are tired of hearing, both from your clients and through the grapevine, that yet-another annuitant is being harassed non-stop then we implore you to pick up the phone or open your e-mail client and let us know. Only through cooperation can we put a stop to behavior that shouldn’t even be going on in the first place. Scraping can stop. Harassment can stop. Ethics isn’t just jargon to throw around to generate buzz or get web-clicks. Ethical concerns are as serious as anyone’s bottom line – and our stance is that annuitants shouldn’t be taken advantage of to pad a predator’s bottom line.

We look forward to contact and cooperation for the Ethics Initiative as we get the ball rolling.

Sharks, piranhas, vultures, predators. These are just some of the choice words that annuitants have had for some businesses in the industry. Part one of the harassment investigation dealt with the tactics employed by these unscrupulous businessmen and women and part two with the reactions of the annuitants and their families. Taking those into account, how can we, as an industry, not admit that scraping is a dire problem to be dealt with? Are we all to be lumped in with the sharks, piranhas, vultures, and predators? Must we all conduct ourselves and our businesses as these others do in order to stay competitive? Must we simply accept that further victimizing annuitants and their families is the moral price of working in this industry? We cannot agree.

The factoring side, or secondary market, began because of a very real possibility for those with structured settlements and annuities: sometimes life throws you a curve ball. Sometimes those monthly payments aren’t good enough to cut it anymore; unexpected expenses arise that go beyond the means provided by the payment stream available to them. So what’s left? They need to factor either a part or all of their structured settlement or annuity to make ends meet. Sometimes this isn’t the case at all – sometimes someone believes that the money is an opportunity to do more with their lives – and that is entirely their prerogative… provided of course that they can convince a judge. These are very real and legitimate reasons for this side to exist, but one thing must always be remembered: these people deal with us, factoring types, because they feel they must.

All of our companies, beyond providing us a means to support our families, were founded to help those in need, not to harm. Annuitants are not wallets and bank accounts for us to raid, they are people who need their funds for one thing or another; people with stories, from heartbreaking to dumbfounding, that many of us hear every day – it’s the human part of the business equation, and the part that’s being victimized. Our jobs are to help get annuitants through it all, be it following a traumatic event or simply to help pay the bills. It is not our place to prey upon them. So, what can we do about it?

The industry can voluntarily stop scraping and known scrapers in their tracks. If this was so simple, though, this investigation would have been unnecessary. The industry can police itself better; do business with those with clean records and squeeze out those who resort to unethical means. Alternatively, a much harder line can be taken.

The tactics of scraping are illegal, especially when it is deemed harassment. Litigation to punish offenders could be taken, but will this change anything or merely drive offenders to greater secrecy, or perhaps even more unscrupulous means of obtaining business illicitly? Maybe, maybe not. It’s worth looking into, surely, given the willingness of some annuitants to provide records of contact. But what else can be done?

In the words of several annuitants: “the information should be private, and I (or we) should be left alone. If I want to do business with someone, I’ll seek them out – they should just leave me alone.” The industry has had success approaching problems with Congressional input in the past and we can do so again. Legitimate business is maintained and annuitants are saved from endless hassle and harassment. This not only can be done, but should be done.

Consider the image that the annuitants who fall victim to this garner towards the industry. Do we want the industry’s reputation to crumble under the weight of perceptions of crookedness and predatory behavior? Or do we want to maintain a modicum of respect, both for ourselves and for our clientele, by addressing the problem that scraping represents?

Scraping should not be an option left on the table. The means are already illegal, but the means are only available due to lack of privacy protection afforded annuitants who go through the legal process. These protections should not, in actuality, be necessary given the way the legal system works – but due to the rising prevalence of predatory business practices, it seems necessary.

Should government have to get involved to help both businesses and annuitants? No, it should be left to do whatever else needs to be done. The government shouldn’t have to divert any time or attention to a matter of what is essentially internal business ethics. But, if the industry can’t be trusted to conduct itself properly, then someone or something must step in to assist.
Is there another alternative? Of course. The formation of an industry watchdog, like in other industries, could potentially work. However, what enforcement mechanism is there? What could possibly be done? A sharply worded letter? A fine? Companies that violate the TCPA are subject to a $500 – $1,500 fine already, and this does not seem to dissuade the harassing behavior by itself. So, we’ve decided to work with an attorney willing to take on a class-action suit. If you have any clients who are willing to stand against their harassers, we encourage you to make contact with us and we will refer you to the attorney in question.

Ideally, all offenders would “see the light” and conduct themselves appropriately, but that is farce and fantasy. The problem exists and the offenders profit far too much off of continuing, no different than drug smugglers or snake oil merchants of old, despite the risks. We must either make the risks far too great or simply nullify the ability for them to get the information required for scraping to occur.

This is a call to action for all concerned to stand up and do something about the threat to legitimate business and our clients that scraping represents. It cannot and should not be allowed to continue. Combined and coordinated efforts will yield positive results for all of us, not just our company, and not just yours. Free, fair, and ethical business can and should rule the day.

Previous posts have gone in-depth into the means that some companies use to go after annuitants, but scant attention has been paid to what the annuitants themselves have to say.  As you can imagine, few have many nice things to contribute given the lengths that are taken to try and extract money out of them.  They generally feel angry, bitter, and helpless.

Frequently, annuitants who have provided testimonials ask: “Why don’t they stop contacting me?” especially since every single one of them has demanded contact stop.  Some know that the harassment is illegal and approach it in this way: “Why do they break the law?” they ask; just for potential profit?  “Do they not know what we/I have gone through?”  Others aren’t aware of the illegality of it, but still get the feeling that something’s wrong.  They know they shouldn’t feel harassed and want contact to cease – they just aren’t aware of how to do it or why it started to begin with.  We in the industry do know why; we know it simply comes down to money, and we know it started because they aren’t perceived as victims who are being further victimized by constant and unwanted contact, but clients who contribute to the bottom line.  In other words, these people have been reduced to profit margins.  But why does this matter?  Businesses must turn a profit – and of course, no one disagrees with this, not even the annuitants.  One annuitant who provided a testimonial, a salesman himself, commented (at length) that the tactics are – using a creative use of expletives – ultimately amateurish.  He dealt with the harassment by threatening, consistently, to sue the offending companies.  Thankfully, he was left alone after resorting to this tactic, though it is unfortunate that he had to resort to it in the first place.  Anyone who must resort to illegitimate means for their profits clearly isn’t secure enough in their legitimate business to play fair.

Listed below are a variety select quotes from annuitants that raise important issues in and of themselves.  Beyond the singular quote listed, please note that these experiences are far from unique.  Nearly all of the annuitants that spoke echoed similar feelings.

  • “We’ve gotten to the point, if a woman says ‘no’ it means ‘no.’  When a customer means ‘no’, it means ‘no.’  I keep saying ‘no’, so it means ‘no.’  These companies should lay off.  I shouldn’t have to defend himself after I say no.  I shouldn’t be constantly harassed.”
  • “It’s like they don’t even do their research; they just keep calling and calling and won’t leave you alone.  There’s not even any money left!  They just don’t let up, even when there’s nothing left.”
  • “Basically, once I’ve asked these people to stop calling… it should be something that’s honored.  They shouldn’t keep calling.  But they don’t.  Thirty days roll around, oftentimes, and the same people call.  It should stop the moment I say I doesn’t want the phone calls and services.  Checks in the mail could really hurt me if I didn’t shred all the checks I gets per day.  This is already hard because I’m disabled.  I doesn’t see why this should be public knowledge…”
  • “It’s very annoying.  It’s very frustrating to get these calls ALL THE TIME.  I’ve also got a cell phone, and they suck up my minutes constantly.   I just ignores Florida calls now.”
  • “If [Congress] can pass a law to keep this from happening, this is great.  It shouldn’t be public record to begin with.  This is a private matter and companies shouldn’t keep calling; they should respect that if you didn’t choose their company they should bow out gracefully.”
  • “It’s a case of privacy… and it’s completely stolen.  They know everything.  They know the financial records.  It’s wrong.  I’m constantly harassed and they think it’s their right to come and get my money from me.  They just don’t take no for an answer.”

These stories go on and on, but for sake of brevity, we’ll cut them off there.  There are a few other stories that aren’t quotable due to the highly emotional – and therefore somewhat difficult to transcribe – nature of the conversations, but here are summaries of two:

An annuitant’s father, the primary caregiver for an otherwise troubled son, and the annuitant’s sister, both receive contact on the annuitant’s behalf.  On two occasions this went above and beyond the typical means.  For the father, an entire packet of information was taped to the front door of his home when he wouldn’t answer the door.  For the sister, a medical professional, a representative went to her place of business to get a hold of her, and through her, the annuitant.  The family’s response to this unwanted contact was unanimous dismay and disbelief; they didn’t anticipate that level of harassment.

Another annuitant, partially disabled in mind and body as a result of the incident which resulted in her structured settlement, receives calls around each meal of the day.  Answering every phone call is difficult due to her disabilities, and having to go and answer the phone so frequently, dreading that it may just be another unwanted call, is overwhelming.  It’s a constant stress and source of anxiety which negatively affects her more than the average person as a result of the existing neurological disabilities.  Each phone call and subsequent argument to stop causes stress that she not only shouldn’t have to deal with, but can’t.  She, like so many others, desperately try to screen calls to try and prevent the endless stream of contact.  There is no good reason why this annuitant, her family, or any others should have to be subjected to this torment.

So what can we, as an industry, do about it?  What should we do about it?  This will be examined in detail in the next post.

As noted in our preliminary findings report, the original intent of the investigation was purely to look into harassing phone calls; it was too limited in scope and therefore the investigation was adjusted appropriately.  Annuitants’ testimonials are clear: they believe they are being ruthlessly and systematically being targeted for someone else’s profit.  But how are these people being reached?  What makes contact harassment?  Let’s explore this in more depth.  All clients and companies exposed by these clients have been made anonymous for these posts.

The standard and most frequent forms of contact are direct mailings and phone calls.  For many, though not all, direct mailings are the most annoying simply due to the volume of mail received on a weekly basis; for those annuitants who have only just left the courtrooms the mailings are on a daily basis for months on end.  These mailings are the “Gotcha!” checks that look and are occasionally perceived as free money.  We in the industry know this isn’t the case, and our company has taken steps to warn annuitants to be careful with these mailings – but as previously mentioned, some annuitants don’t understand this.  Some, either due to misunderstanding the mail or out of sheer desperation, will cash these checks.  The results for these people are disastrous; not just in terms of getting money or expecting to receive more afterwards – even when they don’t end up getting any at all – but psychologically.  We work in the industry and understand all of the jargon; many of these annuitants – these people – don’t.  The mailings, despite being effective sales tools, are too much for many annuitants.  Beyond the harmful effects for those who end up cashing in the checks they’re getting in the mail, from a practical standpoint they are largely ineffective.  Nearly all testimonials from clients note that whenever they see mail that seems like it might be about a structured settlement or annuity, they simply make a bee-line for the garbage can and toss it in.  It seems about as effective as the political mailings we are all being inundated with during the mid-term election season.

Phone calls are troublesome territory for annuitants.  For many, they take the appropriate approach to unwanted solicitations and request to be removed from the calling list for the respective company.  At this point, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act is clear that the person shouldn’t be contacted again for at least a period of five years.  Do the phone calls stop?  For the vast majority of the time, absolutely not.  Testimonials frequently cite that despite repeatedly telling companies to stop calling, they do anyway.  The salesman might change, but the companies don’t.  This is textbook corporate harassment.  If this wasn’t troublesome enough, clients have gone on at length regarding the kinds of tactics employed by these various representatives.  This ranges from a typical sales pitch of feigned familiarity and friendliness to shouting that they’re being ripped off and should do business with them.  For the friendlier pitch, one client testified that she repeatedly received a call from a man at company X.  He was told not to call back and respected this for about a month.  The next month he called and claimed that when they had spoken the month prior he was given an indication that she may be interested in their company’s services.  She explained that this wasn’t the case and to stop calling, that she wasn’t interested in selling her annuity to them.  Calls of this type occurred once a month for several months until the representative finally stopped.  Despite the friendliness of these solicitations, it must be remembered that it is still harassment since she repeatedly told this person, and the company he represented, that contact was not desired.  Beyond the legality of the situation, it is simply unethical and has effects beyond the immediate offender.  If our industry continues with these practices then it is our entire industry that will ultimately suffer, and it begins with those that continue to conduct themselves exclusively in legitimate business practices.  Here is another example, far less friendly, than the first:  another annuitant, one from years past, still to this day receives calls and mail.  When he does receive calls, he states that many of the sales reps are “borderline belligerent” and just won’t get off the phone.  He has resorted to threats of suing them for harassment since they have kept calling for so long.  These sorts of measures should not have to be taken by any annuitant anywhere.  This same annuitant went on at length about how “no means no” and that he isn’t in the habit of changing his mind, no matter how much harassment he suffers as a result.  We at Bentzen Financial agree.  No does mean no.

Other tactics reported to us include the following, which we have come to expect as standard fare per testimonial:

  • Forcefully coercive tactics, misinformation included.  This includes pretending to be a representative of our own company to set the annuitant at ease before claiming that no, in fact the person is from another company and apologizes for the (consistent) misunderstanding.
  • Contacting with equal vigor the family of the annuitant; minors and out-of-state relatives included.  Some, especially children, more apt than others to be fooled by the “Gotcha!” checks.
  • Contacting the legal representatives of annuitants to the point of harassment as well.
  • Claims that Bentzen Financial is ripping annuitant off, and therefore the soliciting salesman’s company should naturally be selected as replacement, despite contractual obligations with us.
  • Physically showing up at an annuitant’s, annuitant’s family member’s, or annuitant’s legal representative’s home or place of business with an aggressive, in-person sales pitch.
  • Using dialing machines and automated messages to contact annuitants despite not being legally permitted; the indicated use of dialing machines is based upon time lags during the answering of phone calls.
  • Even if the annuitant does business with a company, which is to say that he or she gave in to the constant contact, the contact doesn’t stop – not even from the company that he or she gave in to.  This includes annuitants who don’t even have any money left to do business with.  Harassment continues despite this logical disconnect.

The standard fare is unacceptable and unfair not just to the annuitants, but to the businesses that are not otherwise engaged in these practices.  How is legitimate business expected to flourish if such a practice like scraping is allowed to continue?  The short answer is that it can’t.  The only logical conclusion is that if one is to try and compete with the dark side, one must join it.  Thus we come to a case mentioned in the preliminary findings report: where an annuitant was harassed not just by phone and mail, but also directly from a representative on Facebook.

This is easily one of the most astounding cases that we have come across.  Her testimony is standard, otherwise: constant mailings and phone calls.  Representatives are told to leave her alone but they refuse to do so; warnings and demands to stop are frequent.  The most persistent representative admitted to searching through all of Facebook for the annuitant by last name until he found her.  He then attempted his pitch again.  The annuitant was so disturbed by this man’s refusal to take the hint that she took a photo of her desktop, including the Facebook message, and forwarded it to us – after promptly refusing him once again.  The representative, the company he worked for, and the contents of the message were plain to see without any attempt at veiling it.  So brazen was this particular attempt that it is difficult to do this story justice without attaching the picture submitted to us; for privacy reasons, however, this is withheld.

These are the tactics employed by the scraping pariahs of our industry.  Part two of these investigation results will be released soon and will delve into what the annuitants themselves have to say about their experiences; what they think, feel, and want to see happen in the industry given their experiences.  Check back soon.

Bentzen Financial has, for some time now, received reports from former annuitants that have done business with us that they feel they are being harassed by others in the industry.  Once the liquidation of their structured settlements or annuities are approved, annuitants are immediately contacted to try and squeeze more business out of them – at least, with regards to factoring.  Unfortunately this also occurs once an annuitant has put together a structured settlement.  This is the scraping phenomenon that has overrun the entire industry.  Due to the reports of harassment of our former clients, we felt it necessary to conduct a formal investigation.  To that end, we have tasked an independent academic to conduct the investigation and produce a report of findings.  Preliminary findings have been produced and already further serve to demonstrate the deleterious effect that scraping has on the industry.

The original focus of the investigation was specifically on harassing phone calls, but after speaking with many on (just!) the Bentzen Financial client list, it seems as though this was too limited in scope.  Nearly every annuitant who has completed a testimonial reports the extraordinary degrees that several companies in the industry – several names come up constantly – have gone to try and secure their business.  Representatives of these companies are frequently referred to as “sharks,” “vultures,” and “predators” of one kind or another.  It is clear that the annuitants feel as though they are being further victimized by unscrupulous businesses with unethical practices, commonly asking why these solicitations don’t stop despite repeated confrontations and, in some cases, pleadings.

Many of these annuitants note that there tends to be a time lag between when they pick up the phone and when a person on the other line responds; this is typically indicative of the use of auto-dialing machines which are strictly regulated by the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (1991).  Calls to cell phones, for example, are strictly prohibited – and are frequently done anyway.  More troublesome, however, is the fact that all affected annuitants report telling solicitors to stop calling – and none complied for the mandatory five (5) years as stipulated by the TCPA.  Adding insult to injury, the solicitors often do not identify themselves or their organizations, preferring to rely upon salesman tricks and faux friendliness, with some even going so far as to state or imply that they work for Bentzen Financial.  There are numerous reports of overreach, such as by relentlessly contacting spouses, children, and other relatives using whatever means possible.  Unfortunately this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg; some reports include harassment by salesmen on Facebook, misleading sellers into believing they represent another company that may have a better working relationship with them, or even going to their homes and places of business seeking them and their families in person.  The general consensus is that annuitants should not be contacted by anyone they have not sought out themselves.  Even companies that have done business with annuitants in the past are often reported as carrying out harassment after initial business is concluded.  This is how the industry’s reputation takes a hit: even those companies whom clients decided to deal with are engaging in actions that many annuitants feel as though are predatory.

A final and consistent complaint that annuitants report is that the sheer amount and frequency of direct mailings with “Gotcha!” checks being sent to them is overwhelming.  While most annuitants know that these checks are essentially traps for companies to try and get more money out of them, some lack sufficient understanding of how the industry works and get caught up in what seems like a blessing of free money.  There is no free money and there is no such thing as a free lunch.  It is simply unacceptable that some annuitants, many of whom are struggling financially, are further victimized in this manner – be it due to their own ignorance or desperation.

The preliminary findings do not paint the industry in a positive light.  Scraping, now associated with harassment, is dangerous to the industry and legitimate business.  For the industry to survive and flourish it cannot continue such an unethical practice.  The complete report is being put together.  Its findings will be noted in a future post.