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Anonymous marketers lure seniors with postcards [Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.]

By Bob LaMendola, Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

March 08--They look innocuous: postcards in the mail from anonymous senders offering senior citizens information on a benefit. Just fill it out and mail it back.

But consumer experts said responding to the offers will result in seniors getting a phone call or knock on the door -- sometimes many -- from insurance agents. South Florida, with its half-million seniors, is prime territory for the solicitations.

The postcards typically do not come from insurers. That's because federal and state laws forbid insurers from soliciting seniors unless they ask for it. Instead, other companies mail the postcards, and if you reply, they sell your name to insurers so an agent can call you.

Seniors may not even realize what they have done.

"That's the way the salesmen try to get their foot in the door," said David Lipschitz, a policy attorney at the nonprofit Center for Medicare Advocacy. "It's not harmful for the consumer [to reply], but be aware an agent will contact you and try very hard to sell you a product."

The technique is not new. Federal and state laws allow it. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners has discussed for years whether to restrict the practice but took no action, said Bill Newton, a former consumer member for the group.

"The people behind these type of things feel like there's a sucker born every day, and they're just looking for them," said Newton, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network. He said his group gets complaints regularly about the mailings. He gets the postcards himself.

"The ones that upset me the most are burial insurance," Newton said. "They try to make [the letter] look like a government document. In general, the coverage is not very good. You end up paying far more than the policy would pay off."

Many South Florida mailboxes recently contained postcards for "a state-regulated program to pay for your final expenses." It did not mention burial insurance or name the insurer or the sender. The postcard was marked to return to SD Reply Center in Rockwall, Texas.

SD, or Senior Direct, is part of TargetLeads, a company that says it has been collecting sales leads on seniors for 26 years on behalf of insurers selling health, annuity, funeral and long-term care coverage.

TargetLeads President Richard Bufkin could not be reached for comment with calls to his office.

Consumer experts urge seniors to be careful about sending back anonymous postcards. Without the name, you can't check out the policy or the insurer in advance, said Hillary Dalin, a program director at the National Council of Organizations on Aging.

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"Why would you send a postcard back to an anonymous source when you could find an insurance agent of your own choosing in your own community?" Dalin said.

blamendola@tribune.com or 954-356-4526

Insurance information

Florida Department of Financial Services at myfloridacfo.com or 877-693-5236 or 850-413-3089.

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(c)2012 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

Visit the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) at www.sun-sentinel.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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