St. Louis, Mo., Nov. 17, 2011 – A Missouri insurance agency appears to be using questionable Medicare mailings to sidestep the state’s no-call law and get its salespeople into the homes of senior citizens, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) warns.
The BBB urges caution when dealing with Haberstroh Insurance Agency, Senior Health Group, Senior Health Team or B.D.H. The businesses operate out of the same address on Hollenberg Drive in Bridgeton, Mo., and are run by members of the same family.
Three years ago, Haberstroh agreed to pay the state $65,000 and change its marketing practices after then-Attorney General Jay Nixon accused it of calling Missourians on the no-call list.
Richard D. Haberstroh Jr. is listed in state records as president of Haberstroh Insurance. Haberstroh’s mother, Patricia A. Haberstroh, is listed as the company’s secretary. Patricia Haberstroh said her son owns B.D.H., which operates a call center to generate appointments for the insurance agency.
Seniors who have received the Medicare mailings said they believe the postcards are deceptive. B.D.H employees said company supervisors instructed them to follow up the mailings with phone calls that the employees considered misleading.
“I felt like they were trying to trick people,” said one former employee.
“I knew it was wrong,” said another. “I told one of the supervisors it was wrong.”
Following an investigation, the BBB suspended Haberstroh’s BBB accreditation in September for “engaging in activities reflecting poorly on the BBB or its members.” The company resigned from the BBB last week.
“From its postcards to its telemarketing activities, much of its solicitation activity seems designed to mislead consumers,” said Michelle Corey, BBB President and CEO. “In most cases, the unwary targets appear to be senior citizens.”
The concerns over Habserstroh’s marketing are two-fold: the business’ use of an outside firm to generate questionable sales leads, and its use of what former employees call deceptive telephone sales tactics to obtain appointments for salespeople.
Haberstroh uses National Reply Center, an Indianapolis-based lead-generation firm, to mail thousands of postcards on its behalf to seniors in Missouri, Illinois, Kansas and Indiana. One mailing, to a woman in Webster Groves, Mo., is marked: “Important Information Enclosed. This Information Is Intended For Medicare Beneficiaries Only.” The postcard said changes in Medicare “have increased the amount you are required to pay for your health care; however, you do have options that could save you money on your healthcare.”
The card asked that the woman return a postage-paid card for additional information. It asked for her name, date of birth, name of spouse and her phone number. In smaller type, the mailing says in capital letters it is not connected with or endorsed by the U.S. government or any state agency. Haberstroh’s name is not on the card, and there is nothing to indicate the mailing was sent on behalf of an insurance agency.
The company has said that by returning postcards with their contact information, the seniors were giving permission to contact them, despite being on the state’s no-call list.
The husband of the Webster Groves woman said he believes the mailing is potentially misleading.
“If they want to sell me insurance, they should just ask me,” he said.
A 76-year-old Florissant, Mo., woman who received a similar postcard said she thought the postcard had come from Medicare and ultimately made an appointment for a representative of Haberstroh to come to her home. Had she known she was making an appointment with an insurance salesperson, she said, “I would have said ‘no thank you.’ ”
The postcard responses are used as sales leads by Haberstroh and B.D.H. B.D.H. uses employees to phone those who have filled out the cards, asking them to answer a series of survey questions. Pat Haberstroh said B.D.H. sells leads to Haberstroh.
Four former B.D.H. employees who spoke to the BBB all said they were instructed to tell seniors and others they were not selling anything and simply wanted to ask a few questions.
But the former employees said the survey questions were designed to determine whether the seniors would be good leads for Haberstroh’s sales agents.
Soon after the survey, a company employee would call qualified seniors to try to set up in-home appointments with salespeople whose job it was to sell health, life and other types of insurance.
The former employees said supervisors also instructed them not to mention the company’s affiliation with Haberstroh, telling them instead to say they were calling on behalf of B.D.H. or Senior Benefits, Senior Health Team or Senior Health Group. Senior Health Group is wholly owned by Haberstroh Insurance Agency, according to records with the Missouri secretary of state. The former employees said as soon as they identified the consumers as good leads, they were to snap their fingers to signal a supervisor to get on the phone and confirm the information.
The former employees said the consumers they called routinely told them they were on the no-call list and had never filled out a card requesting information. The employees also said that many of those on their lead lists were deceased, some for 10 years or more.
In addition to the attorney general’s action, Haberstroh ran into trouble in 2006 in connection with the sale of Medicare HMOs. Two Haberstroh sales agents were fired and its contract with UnitedHealthcare terminated after a St. Louis TV station documented what UnitedHealthcare said were deceptive and misleading sales tactics involving a 69-year-old St. Louis woman.
The website for Haberstroh Insurance and Senior Health Group says that Haberstroh operates in four states and produced $25 million in sales in the last year. Patricia Haberstroh said the insurance agency is the largest in the St. Louis area, writing 29,000 policies last year and receiving only eight BBB complaints.
She also said that the use of an outside company to generate leads is common in the insurance industry, and there is nothing wrong with it. She said such an arrangement is crucial for insurance brokers whose ability to do business has been hurt severely by no-call laws. She said the agency is providing an important service to seniors.
The BBB suggests that consumers be wary of mailings asking them to fill out a questionnaire or return contact information. Consumers should understand that by responding to such a mailing they may be giving permission to be contacted. They should also understand that survey phone calls may open the door for future sales solicitations.
A company’s BBB Business Review may be obtained at www.bbb.org or 314-645-3300.
Editor's note: Haberstroh Insurance Agency agreed that "Our name will appear on future mailings, as required."
Contacts: Michelle Corey, President & CEO, 314-584-6800, firstname.lastname@example.org; or Chris Thetford, Vice President-Communications, 314-584-6743 or 314-681-4719 (cell), email@example.com; or Bill Smith, Investigator, 314-584-6727, firstname.lastname@example.org