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LOS ANGELES—Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. and Insurance Commission Steve Poizner today announced a $7.2 million settlement with American Investors Life Insurance Company, Family First Insurance Services, and Family First Advanced Estate Planning, resolving allegations that the companies sold thousands of annuities with exorbitant fees to vulnerable senior citizens.
“These companies tricked senior citizens into buying annuities that would not pay out for years and had substantial early withdrawal fees—investments that made no sense for elderly people,” Attorney General Brown said. “California took action against these companies and today’s settlement marks the end of their unlawful practices,” Brown added.
“I refuse to tolerate insurance fraud in California,” said Commissioner Poizner. “Targeting our state’s vulnerable seniors to make an extra buck is especially egregious. Today’s settlement is a victory for seniors and all California consumers.”
Today’s multi-million dollar settlement resolves a lawsuit filed in 2006 which alleges that the companies tricked senior citizens into buying annuities—long-term financial vehicles with high penalties for early withdrawal. The annuities offered the possibility of future payments, but only after a lengthy surrender penalty period. Such annuities are generally acquired as long-term investments for future retirement income and not considered wise vehicles for seniors’ savings.
Under the scheme exposed by the attorney general and the insurance commissioner, Family First sent sales representatives, who were not authorized to practice law, to senior citizens’ homes to provide legal advice on estate planning. At no time during the initial solicitation or the home visits did Family First disclose that their ultimate goal was to sell annuities. After preparing the living trust documents the agents returned to the seniors’ homes—under the guise of acting as their financial or estate advisors—and induced the seniors to move their liquid assets into annuities.
The representatives did not disclose that seniors would be unable to withdraw more than the specified amounts while waiting for the investment to mature—sometimes up to 15 years—without incurring substantial penalties. The scheme, known as a Living Trust Mill, is a growing threat to senior citizens who are lured by the free seminars and sales agents who pose as financial or legal experts.
The settlement, filed today in Los Angeles County Superior Court, requires American Investors Life Insurance and the Family First companies to pay $1 million in civil penalties and distribute $5.5 million to consumers who purchased the annuities through Family First and incurred surrender penalties. The judgment also requires the companies to pay $700,000 to reimburse the Office of the Attorney General and Department of Insurance for costs incurred during the investigation and prosecution of this case.
The settlement also requires American Investors Life Insurance to waive surrender penalties when consumers present evidence of a significant financial hardship. The company must let consumers redeem the annuities, without surrender charges, in the form of monthly payments. Consumers who have not already received a credit for 55% or more of future surrender charges will have an opportunity to receive the value of their annuities in monthly payments along with a bonus of either 1% or 1.25% of their principal investment.
The judgment forces Family First Insurance Services and Family First Advanced Estate Planning to permanently cease all business operations. The judgment bars American Investors Life Insurance Services from soliciting seniors without revealing that the consumer will be propositioned by an insurance agent. American Investors is no longer permitted to make false or misleading statements about the terms of any annuity or insurance policy and they must disclose all charges that may be incurred when redeeming an annuity. The defendants are also prohibited from engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.
Scam artists have capitalized on the growing popularity of estate planning and living trusts by establishing schemes, known as Living Trust Mills, which use the estate planning services as a cover to sell annuities. The sales agents lure seniors with free seminars and sometimes pose as estate planners or financial experts to gain trust, allowing them to review personal financial and investment information. Agents running a Living Trust Mill are known to pressure seniors into converting all their investments into annuities by scaring the seniors into believing their original investments are unsafe.
To avoid these scams, consumers should be especially wary if a sales agent exhibits any of the following warning signs:
• The sales agent claims to a trust expert, senior estate planner or paralegal, or to work with an attorney who is an expert in estate planning. These agents are not attorneys and not experts in living trusts. If seniors need assistance with preparing a trust or other estate plan, they should seek out their own attorney whose expertise is in estate planning.
• Offering a free seminar or sales presentation on living trust services.
• Requesting access to personal financial information while setting up or updating an existing living trust. Agents use this ploy to ultimately pitch annuity investments.
• Criticizing existing investments and saying that these investments carry more risk than the annuity.
• Not discussing the drawbacks of a particular investment option.
Consumers who believe they been victimized by Family First, another Living Trust Mill or by annuity fraud, should report the crime to their local district attorney or the Department of Insurance at 1-800-927-HELP or visiting www.insurance.ca.gov. They also may file a complaint at the Attorney General's Web site, http://www.ag.ca.gov/consumers/mailform.htm.