The Americare flyer arrived in the mail for Charles Allen as if someone had read his mind. “No age limit. No claim forms to fill out. Custodial services are provided. Eating, cooking, bathing, light cleaning, toileting, grooming, dressing and transportation,” it promised.
Allen’s wife was 86 years old. Her kidneys had begun to fail. She was too fragile for dialysis and didn’t want to go into a home. Neither did Allen, who was 85 and struggling with his health, too.
“Macular degeneration, five heart attacks, five back surgeries, two knee replacements, two hip replacements, umpteen shoulder surgeries, prostate cancer and I don’t know how many other things,” said his daughter, Vada Bennett, who lives in Carlsbad.
So, around Christmas of 2010, Allen dialed the number on the flyer. Americare owner Michael Woodward came out to the Spring Valley house in eastern San Diego County. Bennett said, “They thought he was fabulous. Thought he was wonderful. He was flattering, charming. He’s telling them everything they want to hear.”
He told Bennett’s mother that she was pretty, and that Americare would cover the cost of all the in-home, non-medical services Allen needed to care for his wife for just $2,000 a year -- and that Allen would get a special discount for being a veteran. He had fought in World War II.
Courtesy Vada Bennett
Charles Allen and his wife lost tens-of-thousands of dollars on a fraudulent insurance plan he purchased to cover the costs of in-home care when his wife was diagnosed with kidney failure.
Allen signed up. Soon after, he hired a caregiver to come in three days a week. As his wife’s health slipped, they upped it to five.
That was the last that Bennett heard about Americare and Michael Woodward until a Father’s Day brunch a year and a half later. “My dad seemed, like, very down and sad. Finally, I asked him, I said, ‘Is there something wrong?’ And he said, ‘Would you write a letter for me?’ ” Bennett recalled.
Allen explained that he’d given Woodward tens of thousands of dollars and Woodward had not reimbursed him for the costs of care. To top it off, Woodward had accused Allen of double-billing Americare.
As Bennett began reviewing her dad’s papers she realized just how audacious Woodward’s accusations were. “Red flags were flying,” she said. “I called the Better Business Bureau and they had an F rating.”
And, when Bennett Googled Michael Woodward, “All these articles about him, and how he’d had his insurance license revoked unethical behavior, came up. He had been run out of Washington, run out of Oregon, and I thought, ‘This is no small situation. This is much, much bigger.’ “
Dave Jones, California’s insurance commissioner, puts Woodward’s’ total fraud at about $6 million in 10 states. He said Michael Woodward and his wife, Michelle, had been conning people since 2001. They made themselves hard to catch by using aliases and multiple business names like Secure Care and Home Care America.
In California, complaints about the Woodwards had languished in the insurance office for at least six years. Authorities sent the couple a cease-and-desist letter in 2007. Jones said the state lacked the resources to follow up. “Often times, seniors won’t come forward because they’re embarrassed about having been taken advantage,” Jones said. “Also, in some cases, seniors will have cognitive issues which make it a challenge to remember precisely what occurred.”
It wasn’t until last April that the San Diego district attorney’s office had enough reliable complaints to charge the Woodwards with defrauding 238 seniors in San Diego County.
Paul Greenwood, who heads the San Diego district attorney’s elder abuse prosecution unit, said: “I’m constantly telling seniors you will never ever win the Canadian lottery.” The National Council on Aging puts the annual loss due to elder financial abuse at $2.9 billion.
The National Adult Protective Services Association said that financial fraud is the fastest-growing form of elder abuse. However, it is difficult to measure the scope. There is no national database of crime statistics for financial crimes against seniors and it is estimated that just one in 44 cases is reported.
Greenwood warned seniors to be skeptical of anyone who asks them for money. “Never take the representation of a salesman. Don’t make instant decisions. Take time. Review written documents. And seek advice before you commit to anything,” he said.
Bennett said she was stunned that her father fell prey to the Woodwards. “My dad is very good with money and he checks everything out. But the whole point of this is: Be aware. If you have parents, double-check their accounts if you can,” she cautioned.
Last Sunday, Vada Bennett was able to give her father what she said was the best Father’s Day present ever. She told him that the Woodwards had pleaded guilty to 11 counts of fraud a few days earlier. Bennett said she’s just sad her mom can’t share the excitement. She died earlier this year.
Courtesy Vada Bennett
Vada says she's sad her mother, who passed away shortly after this photo was taken in January, 2013, did not get to share in the excitement of the Woodwards' guilty plea.
The Woodwards’ sentencing is Aug. 8. Michael faces a maximum of 11 years in jail. Michelle will get probation. The court has seized their assets and ordered them to pay restitution.
Vada Bennett hopes her dad will get the rest of his money back soon.
Meanwhile, authorities have identified 180 additional victims in Riverside and Orange Counties and are searching for more.