!Oh no they didn’t–Utility Scam Alert–Cuidado/Be Careful!

They lied to her to gain her trust.  Spoke to her in her native language; shared their love of their home country with her, all the while scamming my sweet client into switching utility providers.  They said they were with the local utility company. They showed her a valid looking identification card that seemed to indicate they were telling the truth.  And they promised her discounts on utilities that would make anyone jump on board.  In reality, they used her utility account number to switch her to another provider–and in the months that followed she saw bills that were more than triple what she had previously been paying.

She came to me for help with what we call a public benefit check.  She had recently become disabled, was no longer able to do her past work and had exhausted her vacation pay.  She was anxiously awaiting Social Security Disability benefits and had come to my office for help.  We conduct public benefit checks often in the legal services industry, to review what public benefits, if any, that a client may qualify for so that we can help them apply; these benefits often make the difference between getting by and living

During this routine check, I discovered she was not paying utility bills to her local provider alone, instead she had been inadvertently enrolled in a separate public utility provider, who she was ‘contracting’ with for the ‘services’.  This is all a part of the overall utility ‘deregulation’ effects.  Folks say the deregulation of the energy market provides choice for consumers.  But in my mind and experience, it undermines the utilities we all rely upon. To me, deregulation of the energy market tears away at community connectedness. With all of this “choice”, we are left with so much confusion about which ‘service provider’ is legitimate, trustworthy and ultimately accountable to the public it is ‘tasked’ with serving. Hence, scams like the one that happened to my client can take years for government agencies to investigate.  All the while, a ‘licensed and regulated’ energy ‘provider’ is not only defrauding countless people across the nation but is also engaging in anti-competitive and illegal scams to ‘compete’ with the public utility provider.

In my client’s case, she had been fraudulently enrolled as a customer of the company we will call “No Stars Energy”.  No Stars Energy knocked at her door, speaking her native language, Spanish.  The representative from No Stars Energy told my client a lie about a utility discount program that the public utility company was getting the word out about.  My client then showed her bill so that the representative could ‘explain’ how much she could potentially save.  Although my client saw a slight decrease for one month, it was in the months that followed that she noticed her bill would eventually triple.  She did not understand that the electricity she consumed was being billed to her at more than triple the rate that the public utility charged; she did not even know that she had switched companies.

When we  discovered what happened, I advised her of her rights.  I agreed to help her file complaints with the local attorney general, public utility commission and the Federal Trade Commission. She will file a police report and we have decided to reach out to the media.  These complaints cannot correct the sense of humiliation and loss and the anger that she feels over having been lied to and taken advantage of.  Not to mention the bills she over paid for several months, which we are looking into. 

When we spoke to the representative from the public utility company, my client asked again and again–“how can they show the ID of your company, how can they lie to me and so many others and get away with it?”.  It was sad to see how much it affected her.  In the end, it has really affected me too.  This type of targeted scam is so unsettling.  These are tough economic times.  So many low-income and vulnerable people, especially seniors are at risk for this type of exploitation.  It is even more upsetting because it seems at this time, we should be counting on our friends and neighbors, now more than ever.

Utility providers rarely provide discounts and rarely make unsolicited house calls. Contact your city’s 311 or municipal offices to ask about legitimate and local government assistance for utility costs, if you are in need of assistance with utilities.  Your valid utility provider will rarely, if ever, contact you at home to discuss this type of help.

 If you have a question or concern about something like this, call your utility provider or the police.  Watch out, everyone. Guard your utility account numbers in the same way that you would guard your social security number, because in this day and age, it only takes an account number for this type of fraud to take place.

Who will be my champion?

Student loan monsters keep me up at night. 

Who will be my champion?

A professor once told me a story; it was some time early in her career, I believe.

She quit her job as a high paid associate to become a public defender; her family all told her she was crazy.  I think she took something like a 90% reduction in pay.  But she had to follow her dream to help the poor, she said.  The problem was that she could not afford bus fare to meet her clients at the court house.

What a damn shame. I think she told me that to encourage me to consider that not everyone who wants to serve the poor, has to become poor to do it.

At the time I was struggling between financial security and the dream of legal aid and poverty law.  I will never regret my decision to pursue poverty law.

Sometimes, however it is all just too much.  Some days the work never stops coming, the load is so very heavy and the road seems lonely.  The clients dance around in my head, long after I leave the office.

Who will be my champion?

I am proud of what I do; I am happy that I am advocating for them.  I am passionate about access to justice.  And yes I feel called to champion those who are often underrepresented by being a poverty lawyer. 

I am not here to get rich, but some days are harder than others.

I am blessed, I have a roof over my head, I am making regular payments on a modest car and I have nice things.  But, I am also not financially secure, by any means.

Who will be my champion?

All of the advocates championing the cause for legal aid funding are crying out for resources to ensure that the countless folks who are desperate for access to justice have a better chance at it.  Their advocacy will make our client cases stronger and the work we do more efficient.

Here are just a few articles touching on the crisis affecting legal aid services and access to justice in this country. Grant Makers Need to Help the Poor Fight Legal Injustices, (Texas) Legal Aid Services Face Funding Crisis, Right to Lawyer Can Be an Empty Promise for the Poor.

Every day, everywhere we turn there is a new and different or old and languishing crisis that begs for advocates to cry out, to seek that justice be restored. As a relatively new attorney, every day I wake up, with a battling internal sense of both impending dread and hope as I come to the office.

I think: I must find a way to do poverty law with some form of work-life balance.

Those words work-life balance are kind of a joke to me. They are just something people in the United States say to each other to feel better about the looming deadlines and long hours that we tolerate at work; most people talk about work-life balance because their work keeps them from their own lives. But what happens when your life is purposed by your work?

I am a poverty lawyer and I breath in the desire for justice and I  breath out as I work for equality.  Work-life balance has never come easy to me. I recognize that if I am not careful to work for it–this balance, then no one wins.

Who will be my champion?

Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying, right?

(http://youtu.be/46GwJbrMghQ)

Thank You Tomas

An un-mailed letter to a hero among us.  

Dear Tomas,

I am writing to you this cold day in March to thank you for your service.  I am overwhelmed when I hear your story–but more than that, I am grateful.  I do not know your suffering.  I cannot begin to imagine what you and Claudia and your family are all struggling with.

My initial reaction is to beg you to keep fighting–but you have fought the fight–on the battlefield and back here on the home front you have fought so hard and so bravely.  I have not met you, but I have met countless of your brothers and sisters, other soldiers who also served in Iraq, still others who fought in Vietnam, Korea, WWII and Afghanistan, some who never deployed–but still suffer their own battle scars. Yours and theirs are different stories, but also they are the same.

Each time I meet a veteran, I hope to honor their individual battle scars, those earned from their time in service and those earned from the home front battle-the war waged by returning veterans every day, among strangers, with family members and within themselves.

But your story of courage, your words and actions honor other soldiers and sailors, the fallen and the suffering who cannot speak, cannot reach out and cry out to others.  They are remembered, because of your bravery–in 2001 and today, last month and last week.

I appreciate your constant bravery and your unwillingness to remain quiet about the hard realizations that you have come to and more so about the devastating challenges that you and Claudia and those closest to you have dealt with since that fateful day.

I have read your letter.  I have heard you cry out against the war crimes committed by (y)our leaders who led you and countless others (and all of us) into a war based upon lies.  I have watched you in video and media clippings where you speak out and up for us all to hear. We are listening.

Those of us who stood in the streets and protested the dangerous decision our so-called leaders made to send our brothers and sisters into a country, without cause, to fight a war, without cause, we hear you.

Those of us who lit candles and prayed while cars passed us by and called us Anti-American, unpatriotic, terrorists and heathens, we are listening to your story–we are grateful for your service–we are only sorry no one listened to us when we hoped to save you from our country’s unwise, unjust and immoral tirades.

I am angry too.  I am angry for you and for your family.  The thousands of American and allied forces who have lost so much.  The Iraqi people.  Our nation weeps for your losses, our collective soul is shambles.

The time that is left for you on this Planet, I pray you have the peace that you deserve.  I pray you know that those of us who respected your decision to serve this country, were grateful then as we remain grateful now.

The tone however is different. When we fought against the invasion, we meant to keep you from harm’s way; we failed you.

We could scream I told you so to Bush, Cheney and the criminals who led you there.   We do that, too.  But also, and importantly we owe you a debt of gratitude.

Tomas, thank you for putting words to paper and then to media in a way that I could never do.  You and all of the men and women who gave their lives –those who do not come home, and all of the wounded warriors who come home, forever changed–you are the anti-war movement’s strongest tool, the veteran’s greatest advocate.  

We will not forget you or your bravery.  I try to fight for your brothers and sisters, by advising those who served–and their dependents about what the VA should be doing, is doing and what benefits they may be able to apply for–and from the comfort of my office, it all seems so trivial. 

Your battle with the VA is unacceptable, because for all of the well-meaning folks within the current Administration fighting to end homelessness among veterans, and those working to improve services for those who have served, the treatment for countless veterans at the VA–remains deplorable.

I am sorry that the VA did not provide you comfort, benefits or medical treatment worthy of you and your sacrifice.

What I do is symbolic in that it involves taking on the VA or whatever agency is at times wronging my veteran clients or assisting veterans with whatever issue is aggravating the scars carried among my veteran client(s) and their families.  I try at times to push forward to the other side of hope, with the idea that something(s), sometime(s) can be better for one veteran, one family.

The sacrifice you made is all too real.   Thank you and God bless you, Claudia and your family and loved ones.

Sincerely,

An Advocate for Veterans

(For those who may not know of Tomas’s bravery, check out these links on Democracy Now! A Message to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney From a Dying Veteran. 

Exclusive: Dying Iraq War Veteran Tomas Young Explains Decision to End His Life,

WATCH: Dying Iraq War Veteran Tomas Young on Bush, Missing WMDs, Failed Medical Care )

P.S. I realize that even writing this letter is selfish on my part.  I wrote it to help me come to terms with what your letter, your advocacy, your service and your life have all meant to me, a person whom you have never meant.  I am grateful to have known your story, Tomas, thank you.

Amor, Dinero y Salud

I advised him about his collection proof status before he advised me about seeking happiness, love and financial security. Collection proof is a term that refers to a person who, even if sued for an alleged obligation, a judgment for any obligation owing would be entirely non collectible due to alleged obligor’s asset types and source(s) of income.

This collection proof status often applies to people with low income and folks who receive income that is entirely protected from collection such as Social Security/SSI, Veteran Benefits, retirement pensions etc. What this means for my client is that despite not being able to afford to make any payments, there is no way the creditors could ever ‘touch’ his income. What a relief it was for an elderly, disabled gentleman making it on a very limited monthly income!

But then he went on to advise me about my life, about how he wished for me “Amor, Dinero y Salud”. It has become my new mantra. Somewhere in between serving so many clients, it is often easy to forget about my goals, my dreams. When they come to your office with so little and you are able to help provide some peace of mind, it is rewarding. But when they are able to remind you a little about who you are, why you do the work you do and what it all really means–that is when the attorney client-advocate-advisor role can often reverse itself instantly. I learn a lot from my clients. By no means will I ever become rich doing what I do. But seeking love, seeking security and seeking health, those are all things this lady lawyer can search for and work for, for sure.