Originally published in the Clarion-Ledger on 5/14/2015.
If you’re a senior — especially a senior living alone — you might own medical alert device. These are really clever little pieces of technology. You wear a small transmitter device around your neck or on your wrist, and can call for help by pushing one button if you fall or need immediate help and can’t get to the phone.
Although the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” tagline is a little campy and worn (it’s been used for 26 years), and companies are using what can only be called scare tactics (remember the horrifying commercial with the woman who had fallen down the stairs?), the devices have sold millions.
In the past couple of years, as competition has heated up in the medical alert industry, the potential is there for seniors to be abused by unscrupulous salesmen. Last fall, I wrote about a business that had been shut down by federal regulators. And a few weeks ago, a U.S. District Court in New York shut down a New York-based company called Instant Response Systems (IRS), accusing the company of “bullying and tricking them into paying for unordered medical alert devices.” The company, and its owner Jason Abraham, have been ordered to pay $3.4 million.
“Instant Response Systems lied to older people to get them to pay for medical alert systems they didn’t order and didn’t want,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Their high-pressure, deceptive phone pitches were illegal, and they violated the do not call rules to boot.”
The agency accuses the company of calling elderly consumers – many of them on fixed incomes and some whose numbers were on the “Do-Not-Call” list – and pressuring them into buying a medical-alert type pendant. In some cases, the company is alleged to have told consumers they owed IRS for previous purchases. The scheme involved sending fake invoices and unordered merchandise to consumers, then threatening legal action if they didn’t pay up. This is the second round for Abraham, who was sanctioned by the FTC in 2003 for doing basically the same thing.
“There is no genuine dispute that [the] defendants, in letters and phone calls, made material misrepresentations that consumers ordered medical alert services and owed IRS money when, in fact, they did not,” the court stated, in a release sent by FTC recently. The court also found that Abraham “knowingly made misrepresentations to hundreds of consumers over a five-year period, all while subject to a permanent injunction issued in 2003 . . . which prohibited him from such conduct.”
If you’re considering getting such a device for yourself or for a loved one, the best advice I’ve found is to initiate the shopping process yourself, working with a trusted relative, friend or neighbor, instead of responding to a telemarketer.
When shopping for these devices, I found some great advice from Consumer Reports:
- Buy a device that fits the user’s specific disability. For example, a stroke survivor may need a device he or she can activate with one hand.
- Many devices offer either a wristband or neck pendant. A neck pendant could be the answer if you have skin ailments; lanyards could pose a strangulation hazard.
- Some devices include help buttons that can be wall-mounted near the floor in multiple rooms in case the user falls and isn’t wearing the pendant.
- Look for devices that offer multiple choices for whom to contact if you need help, from emergency services to a friend or relative who lives nearby.
And finally, if someone calls you on the phone trying to sell you such a device, never make a decision on the phone. A legitimate company will never pressure you to make a decision, avoid answering your questions or refuse to send you some information so you can make the best decision. Always check out the company before doing business with them, and report unscrupulous conduct as soon as possible.
There are more tips on buying a medical alert device on Consumer Reports’ site at http://bit.ly/1v9NXzm.