Faithful readers of this column may recall the exploits of wayward insurance salesman Michael B. Woodward, a silver-tongued rogue who specializes in charming octogenarians out of their savings.
Once upon a time, Woodward, 41, was a legitimate agent selling life and health insurance for the Equitable Life & Casualty Insurance Company. But sometime during the late '90s, Woodward lost his job at Equitable and--according to the government--started up a new line of business: flim-flamming elderly consumers into buying policies they either didn't need or couldn't use.
Operating out of his Vancouver home under the name of Secure Tomorrow's (apostrophe his), Woodward employed an impressive battery of sales tactics. One 82-year-old woman bought a life-insurance policy from him even though she had no family: She somehow gained the impression that it was health insurance. Another bought a new policy for $1,264 under the belief that she was renewing an existing policy.
In 2001, the Oregon Insurance Division yanked Woodward's license, citing "a pattern of false representation, manipulation, and dishonesty." Woodward lost his Washington license the next year.
But that didn't stop him. Banned from selling insurance, he turned instead to "pre-paid home service agreements" in which subscribers pay up-front for services they may want in the future, such as cooking, housekeeping and toileting. The catch is that, if the subscriber does not need any of those services during the next year, Woodward simply pockets the money. By a strange quirk of the law, these sorts of agreements fall beyond the reach of the Insurance Division. (See Rogue of the Week, July 31, 2002, and July 30, 2003.)
Thus freed from the scrutiny of regulators, Woodward returned to his favorite prey: little old ladies. Take the case of Nancy Jones, 86, of King City, Ore. In August, Woodward rolled up into her driveway in a swank Mercedes. "He was well-groomed, well-spoken, drove a brand-new car," she told WW. "I would have trusted him to the end of the world."
Jones told WW that Woodward called her, explained that his company had taken over her old insurance policy, and he wanted to stop by and discuss how her coverage had changed. He seemed to know a lot about her--even down to the prescriptions she was taking. By the time he walked out the door, she had written him a check for $2,000.
After he left, she began to wonder if something wasn't quite right. She called her regular insurance agent, who said the company had not been sold. She managed to stop payment on her check before Woodward had a chance to cash it. "Thank heavens I got there in time," she said.
Then there's the 86-year-old retired schoolteacher we'll call Gertrude. Last September, Woodward dropped in on Gertrude at her home in Southeast Portland and explained that he could give her a better deal on her long-term-care insurance. "He didn't hardly give me a chance to say no," she told WW.
Within minutes, Woodward had persuaded Gertrude to write him out a check for roughly $1,000 (she doesn't remember the exact figure). The next day, she came to her senses and demanded it back. After Gertrude complained to Oregon attorney general's office, Woodward did eventually return it, minus a fee.
Woodward did not return calls seeking comment.
For a while, it seemed as if Woodward's karma was going to catch up with him. Armed with 14 complaints since January 2002, the state AG's office launched an investigation. Unfortunately, the case proved difficult to prosecute, in part because of the small print in Woodward's policies and also because his victims often have cloudy memories.
In December, Woodward inked a deal with the attorney general's office, promising to mend his ways and make a full refund to any customer that the AG finds he has swindled.
But on Dec. 29, exactly 10 days later, Woodward swung by the home of Amy and Carl Johnson, an octogenarian couple in Hillsboro who had previously forked over $6,000 for his pre-paid service agreements. According to their son, Ken, Woodward told them that a change in federal regulations would let the Johnsons receive services in an assisted-care facility--but only if they signed up before the end of the year to lock in the coverage. This "upgrade" cost them an additional $2,000. (After Ken lodged a complaint, Woodward refunded the Johnsons $2,499.98.) The Johnsons never received any services, and Carl Johnson died last month.
Such tactics are "unconscionable, dishonest and selfish," says Jan Margosian of the attorney general's office. But the only way to put an end to them is if more subscribers complain to the AG.
To file a complaint, go online to www.doj.state.or.us and click on the "Consumer Complaint Form," or call the AG's Consumer Hotline. In Portland, call (503) 229-5576. In Salem, call (503) 378-4320. Outside these areas, call toll-free (877) 877-9392.
We'd like to think that there are no more victims out there. But we have our doubts.