NEWS AND STORIES
Just Another Day At Legal Aid
Some of our cases make the evening news; sometimes you read about us in the "Atlanta Journal Constitution." Most days, you don't know what a legal aid attorney has done for someone in your community. These are a few of their stories:
Eviction: "Junk Fees"
Our client, who was in subsidized housing, was served with a dispossessory. The warrant was filled out by a non-law firm entity that processes evictions for landlords. The warrant, in addition to seeking the late fees and unpaid utilities that were the basis for the disposessory, sought an additional $150.00 for a “warrant fee.” There was no basis for this fee in the client’s lease. Not being able to find a justification for this $150 fee, Legal Aid filed a Fair Debt Collection Practices Act claim against the firm in federal court. After the firm was served with the lawsuit, the parties quickly reached a settlement on the junk fees that included some recovery to the client, as well as attorney’s fees to Legal Aid. We are hopeful that this will deter this and similar firms from including unauthorized fees in the future.
Ms. Moss is a young mother of three who has lived all her life in Kentucky. One of her children has special needs. This boy was aging out of pre-school and, as a result, he was about to lose some of the supportive services he had been receiving at his pre-school. Ms. Moss was afraid that could not meet his needs herself while working her restaurant job and raising her other children. Her Aunt Sally, who lives in metro Atlanta, told Ms. Moss that she would be happy to care for the child at her home. Ms. Moss decided to give it a try.
Two days after the boy got here, Aunt Sally filed in the local Georgia probate court to get guardianship of the child. On the court forms, she checked the box saying that she did not know where the child’s mother lived, so the only notice was published in the local Georgia newspaper. Even though the women communicated regularly by text message and phone calls, Aunt Sally did not tell Ms. Moss about the guardianship case. A month later, the court granted Aunt Sally guardianship over the boy. After that, she told Ms. Moss that she was now the child’s guardian and that Ms. Moss didn’t have any right to see the boy or talk to him anymore.
The local Family Law Information Center sent Ms. Moss to Legal Aid for help. The Legal Aid lawyer filed a motion to set aside the guardianship order because Ms. Moss was not properly served and the case should have been filed in Kentucky, not Georgia. At the hearing, the parties and their lawyers were able to work out an agreement so that the child could go home to Kentucky with Ms. Moss after the end of the semester. The Legal Aid lawyer also let Ms. Moss know that the legal aid office in Kentucky might well be able to help her get the school system there to provide the educational services the child needs and gave her their contact information.
The Grandma Scam
The telephone rang at about 9:30 a.m.
"Grandma? I'm in Atlanta. I need help."
It was a male voice, quivering and shaky.
I have two grown grandsons.
I may have answered, "Brian?" It sounded a bit more like that grandson, the one who travels a great deal.
He went on to tell me that he had gone to Atlanta to the funeral of a dear friend, that he had had a few beers afterwards, had driven a car, hit another car, injured the driver, and the air bag in his car had inflated and had broken his nose and hurt his jaw.
He had been arrested and was calling from jail
I interrupted several times, saying "It doesn't sound like you." He kept explaining that his nose was broken and he was having trouble talking.
He needed help, and pleaded with me to promise not to call his father.
"I won't lie to you Grandma, I did have a few beers, but I wasn't drunk."
He sounded incredibly stressed, in pain and upset.
The Public Defender had gotten him a Legal Aid lawyer who would call me. They'd taken his cell phone away and he had to get off the jail phone.
A few minutes later, the phone rang again. The Legal Aid lawyer was very calm and reassuring. Brian was hurt, but would be OK. He had talked to the judge, and if we could raise bail in a couple of hours, he'd release Brian, who would maybe have to do some community service, but wouldn't have a record. If we went past the few hours, the case would be re-assigned and he'd probably do some jail time.
Bail was $2,000. Brian only had $700 with him. Could I send $1,300 right away? It had to be sent by mailgram since the court didn't take checks or credit cards, I could send cash or use a debit card. I was told the RiteAid stores near me had mailgram machines, and I was to send the money to an "international bondsman" in the Dominican Republic.
I asked for his phone number, and the number of the Legal Aid Office and the Public Defender office. I called, and was told he did indeed work for them, and was in court.
So did I send the money?
Fortunately, although I am now 89 years old, I had worked at NBC News for many years as producer and writer for an investigative reporter, and had prepared hundreds of investigations, some of which had won me an Emmy and dozens of awards.
I knew I couldn't reach my grandson right away to check the story with him, so I looked up the Atlanta Legal Aid and District Attorney numbers on the Internet. My first call to Legal Aid told me what I was beginning to suspect.
"This is a scam. It's been worked on people all over the country." They suggested that I report it to the FBI, which I did.
Then the phone rang again. It was the phony Legal Aid lawyer asking, "What have you done?"
"What should I tell Brian?"
Me: Whatever you like.
I hear the phone slammed down.
No one is sure how many people have fallen for this story, because victims of what is known as the Grandmother Scam are often embarrassed to admit they fell for it.
They shouldn't be.
It is an extremely stressful and frightening experience.
These people are VERY good at what they do.
The Debt Settling Deception
Ramón and his wife, Lourdes (not their real names), juggled five credit cards with the skill of seasoned circus performers. They had journeyed to the U.S. as legal immigrants in search of jobs. They found work and enjoyed modest prosperity, sometimes even sending money back home. Life was good. Until Ramón got sick. He couldn’t work and the juggling act crashed. Their credit card debt soared over $10,000, a number that terrified the now elderly couple. Desperate for a way out, any way out, they saw a TV ad that drove them to a debt settlement website, Worldwide Management of Debt, Inc. (not its real name either). The pitch sounded good. For just $450 a month, they could pay all five cards down to zero in fifteen months. They signed up.
WMD instructed Ramón and Lourdes to stop paying their credit card bills immediately and start sending $450 every month to them. They had scraped up the money every month for fifteen months when Anita was served with a law suit from one of the credit card companies. In tears, she called WMD.
“You promised everything would be fine! What should we do? What are you going to do? You must help us!”
The voice on the other end didn’t seem very sympathetic. “Calm down, lady. (Pause.) Give me some of the facts.”
She gave him the card company name and the amount demanded.
“Let me see here. Your settlement account (pause) doesn’t have nearly enough to pay that bill.”
“But we’ve been paying $450 every month for fifteen months. That’s $6,750, way more than enough.”
“You don’t understand, lady. We gotta make some money, too, you know. We’re not in this business for our health. You’re right. You’ve paid $6,750 but $2,400 of that is our fee. Hey, we’ve settled two of your accounts and you saved $260 there. You oughta be grateful!”
“But I have to do something now!”
“Tell you what. I’ll let you sign up with us again, same old $450 every month, and we’ll get this company to shut up and we’ll handle the other two as well. WMD wipes out your debts every time. Do we have a deal?”
Lourdes hung up. She turned to Ramón. “We’re going to get help. Remember our friend Dolores? I saw her yesterday and told her about our troubles. She said something like this happened to her, too. She got help from Legal Aid.”
The two did in fact make an appointment. They told their story to Legal Aid’s Erik Heath. Erik filed a complaint against WMD for unfair practices in violation of the Truth In Lending Act. It took a while but eventually they recovered nearly all the money paid to WMD. They used those proceeds to reduce the other card debt. One of those companies also filed suit, and Erik argued successfully for dismissal.
Ramón’s health has improved. He and Lourdes are able to find enough work to make ends meet. They are not lazing in the lap of luxury, but they get along day to day. They don’t use credit cards any more. They have gone beyond the embarrassment they felt at first and now tell their friends about staying away from companies like WMD. Their stories always end with a salute to Erik, who did what Legal Aid does really well: rescue the innocent consumer from the deceptive practices of unscrupulous lenders.
“I’m glad I could help,” notes Erik. “It’s all in a day’s work. I’m just grateful to live in a country where we have laws that protect us when we’re too trusting. Good people who’ve worked hard all their lives shouldn’t be prey for the vultures.”
Olmstead On the Radio
From Catherine Acree, Atlanta Legal Aid Board President:
Often when I speak to senior citizens about scams targeting the elderly, they will ask me, "why do these scammers pick on senior citizens?" I usually reply that they do it for the same reason that Willie Sutton robbed banks -- because that is where the money is. Many seniors have saved all of their lives and lived frugally so that they would have enough to survive in their retirement years. They also grew up in a time when a person's word could be trusted. Unfortunately, there are people out there who will stop at nothing to dupe seniors out of their money. Here are some of the tips that I give to seniors on avoiding scams:
1. Do not answer the phone unless you recognize the number. I know that this is very difficult for anyone, but particularly for seniors who may be a little lonely. Scammers are so good that even getting a senior on the phone greatly increases their chances of success. I advise seniors to get Caller I.D. on their phone along with voicemail. If the call that they missed was important for them, they can always call back after they listen to the voicemail.
2. Do not open e-mails from people that you do not know. Opening an e-mail from someone that you do not know is similar to opening the door to your home and letting in a stranger.
3. If you do answer a phone call, DO NOT GIVE OUT PERSONAL INFORMATION. Do not give your date of birth, social security number or credit card information to anyone who calls you.
4. Contact the Georgia Senior Legal Hotline if you have doubts. If you receive something in writing, and are not sure whether it is a scam, please call the Georgia Senior Legal Hotline before sending any money or giving out personal information to the sender. You can reach the Georgia Senior Legal Hotline at (888) 257-9519.
5. Register your phone number on the Do Not Call registry. Registering on the Do Not Call list can prevent many calls from telemarketers. You can register online, or call 1-888-382-1222.
It was our biggest crowd ever, running in the beautiful Oakhurst neighborhood on a perfect fall day. Read all about . . .