DES MOINES, IOWA (December 28, 2020) — Iowans should beware of mailers that appear to be from government agencies. The letters and postcards may be from marketers soliciting seniors, business owners, or others.
The Iowa Attorney General’s Office recently accused two out-of-state operations of sending deceptive mail to Iowans in an attempt to sell services.
“Consumers should read all mailers carefully and contact government agencies if they are unsure if they are legitimate,” Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said.
In some cases, the mailers have disclaimers in tiny print, such as “not affiliated with a government agency.” The rest of the mailers, however, have addresses, graphics, and language designed to give the overall resemblance of an official government document.
Florida company targets Iowa businesses
The state sued Centurion Filing Services and Dean G Marshlack on November 30, alleging that the St Petersburg, Florida, company violated the Iowa Consumer Fraud Act. According to the lawsuit:
“Centurion — using the name ‘IA Certificate Service’ and a Des Moines address from a UPS Store — sent out at least 7,170 mailers to Iowa business owners. The letters looked like invoices and stated that ‘your articles have been filed with the secretary of state and are complete,’ and instructed businesses to order a ‘Iowa Certificate of Existence’ for $67.50.”
However, business certificates of existence are available directly from the Iowa Secretary of State for only $5. Such a certificate is not required to become an “official” business or to transact business in Iowa, although companies may need it to do business out of state, secure a loan from a financial institution, or for other limited circumstances.
As a result of the deception, many business owners believed that the letter was from the Secretary of State and obtaining the certificate of existence was necessary. The Attorney General’s Office believes about 700 business owners were deceived into ordering the certificate through Centurion, at a markup of more than 1200% from the $5 fee.
“As the Secretary of State, I take pride in our ability to work across state government to benefit Iowa,” Iowa Sec of State Paul Pate said. “My office serves as the business portal for the state, and Iowans rely on us to help protect against attempts to defraud small businesses. It is important that all businesses remain vigilant and report suspicious offers like this one, so we can continue to identify and refer them for investigation.”
The lawsuit seeks an injunction against Centurion to stop its deceptive activity, judgments to restore money to Iowa business owners, and fines of up to $40,000 for each separate violation of the Consumer Fraud Act.
Georgia mailers sent to seniors
A Georgia marketing operation must stop sending mailers targeting older Iowans after actions by the Attorney General’s Office and the Iowa Insurance Division. The operation also agreed to pay the state of Iowa $40,000 and change its practices.
AG Miller’s office reached a consent judgment in December with Direct Mail Processing LLC\ and Rehg Data Assets Inc, both of Marietta, Georgia, and an assurance of voluntary compliance with three executives — Katherine J Rehg, Nathan Addesa, and Shannon T Beekman — who are affiliated with one or more of the companies.
In addition, the Iowa Insurance Division issued a cease-and-desist order December 21 to prevent the operations from sending solicitations to Iowans or attempting to sell insurance in the state.
"We appreciate the hard work and collaborative effort that the Iowa Attorney General's Office has shown on this issue," said Chance McElhaney, Iowa Insurance Division communications director. "The Iowa Insurance Division is committed to holding companies and individuals accountable for their deceptive acts and practices in the business of insurance. Iowa is leading the way by sending a strong message to all companies throughout the country that these types of practices are not acceptable in our state."
Documents filed by the state show how the operation worked:
An insurance salesperson contacts Rehg Data Assets to select a template mailer to be sent to older consumers.
The templates have markings that resemble an official government document. For example, one mailer stated: “You may qualify for a state-regulated program to pay for final expenses. … This benefit will pay for 100% of all funeral expenses up to $35,000. This payment is tax-free for Iowa residents.” Another read, “As a resident of Iowa, you are entitled to more benefits not provided by government funds.”
No insurance company is mentioned, and the return form goes to Direct Mail Processing.
If a consumer returns the card, they get a telemarketing call from the salesperson. Rehg Data gets paid for every lead generated.
Rehg Data and Direct Mail Processing sent thousands of mailers to older Iowans in 2017 and 2018, records show.
The defendants denied they violated the Consumer Fraud Act and targeted older Iowans, but agreed to the settlement. In addition, they will pay for a monitor — former Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Marsha Ternus — to ensure compliance with the terms of the settlement.
No Iowans are believed to have bought insurance as a consequence of the solicitations, although several hundred did return the card seeking their personal information.
The case is similar to one in 2019, in which the Iowa Attorney General’s office sued an Arizona printing company and a Missouri insurance agency for sending out deceptive mailers advertising “FREE government benefits.