Elder-scamming, a cautionary tale

An 82-year-old man who suffers from dementia was allegedly conned recently into ordering a $3,000 Craftmatic Adjustable Bed, according to his upset daughter and the outraged manager of the assisted-living facility.

The man's daughter didn't want her or her father's name used to prevent him from becoming the victim of any future scams, something that happened in the past when telemarketers changed his phone service.

But she discussed discovering his bed purchase quite by accident when she visited her father and spotted a loaf of banana bread and a potted plant in his room. The woman asked her dad where the bread and plant came from. "He didn't have any idea," she said.

Her father also had no idea how he ended up signing a Craftmatic contract she also found in his room, a C.O.D. purchase that made no sense: "We had bought him a new bed when he moved in (two years ago)."

The contract was dated the same day of her visit. "So I went downstairs to see if anybody had signed in," the man's daughter said of a standard procedure at the home.

In fact, a sign requesting that visitors sign in is about the first thing anybody sees walking into the building.

But the female sales rep who visited her father that day didn't sign in, and she figures the sales rep used the banana bread and plant to make it look like she was a visiting family member. "Basically, she snuck in is what she did," she said.

The man's daughter said she called the Colorado-based company's 1-800 number to complain. The woman said she was told the sales rep had an appointment and that it was her fault because her father has a phone in his room. The man's daughter was also told that the sales rep had spent at least two hours with her dad to make the deal, something she found hard to believe.

"If (the sales rep) spent any time with him, they would notice (his dementia)," she said.

One of the symptoms of his dementia is short-term memory loss. It has progressed to the point that if she visits and leaves for 15 minutes, her dad forgets she had just been there.

Connie Carman, the manager of the facility, also called Craftmatic's Colorado office and said she was told it was her fault the sales rep got into the place. Carman also said she was told the man had filled out a postcard requesting information about the pricey beds, but the man's daughter said she was told he made an appointment on the phone to have a sales rep stop by.

"Which is funny, because he couldn't do that," his daughter said of either filling out a postcard or making an appointment over the phone.

A very angry Carman also tore into Craftmatic about the sale when she called: "I told them it was the most egregious thing I've ever heard of someone doing."

The company's response, Carman added, was to hang up on her after telling her she wasn't acting like an adult.

Carman was unwilling to drop the matter. She set up a reverse sting by having the mother of a receptionist at the facility set up an appointment with Craftmatic.

The same sales rep who allegedly sold the bed to the dementia victim at the Queen Anne Manor showed up at the home of the receptionist's mother. So did Carman, who said she confronted the woman about selling a bed to someone who has obvious mental disabilities.

According to Carman, the sales rep said she realized when she was done that it wasn't really a good sale, and the rep also said she called the company to tell them that.

It didn't matter whether she did or not. Craftmatic was adamant that the C.O.D. order had to be cancelled in writing within three days of the contract's signing. That was done by certified mail. Carman added that she also took the sales rep's photo and told her she had called complaints in to the Better Business Bureau, the Washington State Attorney General's Office and to a state hotline about elder abuse. She also told the sales rep the press was involved, "at which point she bolted," Carman said.

A man at Craftmatic called her receptionist's mother soon after that and gave her such a hard time she hung up on him, only to have the man call back and continue his tirade until the woman threatened to call the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), Carman said.

A history of complaints

Carman's complaints about Craftmatic to the Better Business Bureau and Attorney General's Office aren't the first.

"We have had 94 complaints since 1995," said AG Office spokeswoman Lori Takahashi, who added that the complaints have been lodged against Craftmatc outlets nationwide.

Washington Superior Court also filed a consent decree against a Craftmatic outfit in Pennsylvania in 1987, an order prohibiting them from operating in Washington state. Among the practices listed in the consent decree was Craftmatic's practice of saying potential customers could get a steep discount on the regular price when no regular price had been established by the Pennsylvania outlet.

Complaints against Craftmatic lately involve the Colorado office, however, and they paint a picture of deceptive, high-pressure sales techniques. Among those was a complaint in 2000 from a World War II vet in Sequim who said a Craftmatic sales rep falsely told him that the Veterans Administration would cover 30 to 70 percent of the cost of the bed, some models of which can cost more than $9,000.

The vet also said the Craftmatic salesperson falsely told him that he could try the bed out for two weeks and could return it if he wasn't satisfied. As noted above, Craftmatic has a strict three-day limit on canceling orders from the time the contract is signed.

The Better Business Bureau of Oregon and Western Washington has also received complaints about Craftmatic, according to spokeswoman Erin May. But with the exception of one complaint filed against a Craftmatic outlet in Portland, Ore., she said, the complaints are forwarded to the Better Business Bureau in Colorado, where Craftmatic maintains a head office.

According to a June 22 report from the Colorado BBB, Craftmatic has received 56 complaints in the past 36 months, 24 of which were filed in just the last year.

"The company has a pattern of complaints regarding sales issues, product quality issues and refund issues," according to the BBB bulletin, which notes that Craftmatic also maintains offices in Pennsylvania. The Craftmatic operation in Pennsylvania was subject to a five-count complaint filed by the Attorney General of Ohio on Dec. 29, 2003.

"The complaint, asserting that the company targeted Ohio's vulnerable populations, the elderly and mentally incompetent, alleges violations of the Consumer Sales Practices Act for high-pressure sales tactics, illegal pricing, and false advertising," according to the AG's Web site.

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Efforts to contact Craftmatic's Colorado office were not successful.

Carman is still burned up about Craftmatic allegedly conning someone who lives in the Queen Anne Manor, but she plans to make sure at least the same Craftmatic sales rep doesn't prey on her residents in the future. Carman said she's going to post the woman's photo in the office and include it with a warning in the facility's newsletter.

The dementia sufferer's daughter was very upset and broke down in tears at one point when she was interviewed about the company's allegedly taking advantage of her dad.

She doesn't think it was fair.

"He would never have taken advantage of anyone," she said of a time when her father had all his mental faculties.

Reporter-at-large Russ Zabel can be reached at rzabel@nwlink.com or 461-1309.

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