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En español | The government has warned Elite Hearing Centers of America to stop running ads saying people who want hearing aids are eligible for up to $3,000 in COVID-19 stimulus aid. There is no such relief available, says the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which warned that the come-ons represented “deceptive acts” that run afoul of federal law.
Elite Hearing Centers calls itself “one of the fastest growing hearing centers in the South,” with several locations in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Wisconsin, its website says. Its stimulus pitches were featured in newspaper ads and on social media posts, says the FTC, a consumer-protection agency.
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FTC wants quick action
In letters Aug. 19 to two company officials, the FTC set a 48-hour deadline for them to describe what actions they took to address the agency’s concerns. The officials were also told to relay that information to Wisconsin officials.
The letters went to Joseph Crogan in Palm Coast, Florida, and Eric Movshin in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.
The announcements for the purported hearing-aid stimulus relief featured red capital letters saying, “COVID-19 HEARING HEALTHCARE STIMULUS PROGRAM.” They also showed the Great Seal of the United States and the words: “FREE HEARING AIDS” for current and retired government employees.
An attorney for Elite Hearing Centers of America says the firm ceased running the ad in question in July and has issued a timely response to the FTC.
“My client will make sure that the ad is not ever run again,” says attorney Frank Campoamor, of Naples, Florida. “My client apologizes if any statement seemed misleading as there was no intent to do so.”
This isn’t the FTC’s first action over misleading pandemic-related hearing aid ads. A previous case involved an offer too good to be true: $1,000 to help pay for hearing aids, thanks to a “Corona-virus Pandemic Hearing Aid Stimulus Package.”
But there is no such stimulus program, the FTC said in warning letters to two companies, Ear to Hear Healthcare LLC in Florida and an affiliate, Zephyr Hearing Aid Center in Missouri, telling them to immediately stop making such deceptive claims in mailers.
Phony $1,000 checks
The mailers even included a document “designed to look like a check made out to the recipient for $1,000,” according to the FTC. That document was called an “Official Authorized Voucher” and featured instructions to endorse the back of the voucher.
“Call Today to Secure Your Stimulus Money,” the mailers urged.
The mailers said the $1,000 stimulus could be used for “advanced digital technology hearing aids,” a claim the FTC called deceptive. The documents also said government statistics show “over one million individuals over 60 in Missouri have a hearing loss that affects their quality of life,” another claim labeled deceptive. (There are only roughly 1.47 million people age 60 and older in the state, the Missouri Census Data Center says.)
Mailers sent in May
The FTC and Missouri's attorney general sent the warning letters, which identified five deceptive claims in the hearing aid mailers that were sent “in or about May 2020."
The CARES Act, signed into law in late March, authorized economic impact payments — also referred to as stimulus checks — of up to $1,200 for individuals and $2,400 for married couples, plus $500 for each qualifying child. But that law “does not provide vouchers to purchase hearing aids” and neither of the two companies singled out “are authorized to provide any assistance under the CARES Act,” wrote Todd Kossow, the FTC's Midwest regional director in Chicago. Nor is there any Missouri COVID-19 or hearing aid stimulus package, he wrote in the warning letter.
At FTC headquarters in Washington, spokesman Jay Mayfield said Wednesday he could not comment on whether the mailers were sent to consumers in Missouri alone or in other states as well. Ear to Hear Healthcare has 26 locations in Florida and locations in Arizona, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Missouri, its website says. The FTC's warning letter was sent to the company's office in Estero, Florida, a Gulf Coast community south of Fort Myers.
The warning letter to Zephyr Hearing Aid Center went to a hearing aid center in Troy, Missouri. (Zephyr, its website says, is now known as Ear to Hear Healthcare.)
Owners blame marketing firm
Those letters were addressed to three people, including Jason Petty and Michael Brown, who told AARP Thursday their business had hired the marketing company that sent the mailers to people in Illinois and Missouri. The mailers are no longer going out, according to the men, who said they own Ear to Hear Healthcare LLC.
Petty and Brown, in a joint phone interview, said they were the victims of circumstance, put the onus on the marketing company and said they had replied “appropriately” to the FTC. “To our knowledge, the case is closed, and the business is in good standing,” Petty said.
FTC does not confirm that
The FTC, however, declined to confirm the case was closed. “Because FTC investigations are non-public, we aren't able to comment beyond what was in the [warning] letter itself,” the FTC's Mayfield wrote AARP in an email Thursday.
The third person who received a warning letter could not be reached for comment.
It is illegal to make misrepresentations or deceive consumers by omitting material facts when selling products or services, the FTC says.
To file a complaint with the FTC, call 1-877-382-4357 or visit this website.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on July 23, 2020. It has been updated with new information from the FTC.