If you imagine that a local business making surgical face masks was working 24/7, guess again

This story about America’s number one medical mask maker — Prestige Ameritech — appeared in the April 3, 2020 Dave Lieber Watchdog column in The Dallas Morning News. Five days later Texas Gov. Greg Abbott agreed to send the Texas National Guard to work an added shift and produce two million masks a week.

When the history of the coronavirus epoch is written, The Watchdog hopes historians don’t neglect to mention Prestige Ameritech and its owner, Mike Bowen. The North Richland Hills company is America’s No. 1 maker of hospital surgical masks.

During this crisis, you’d think the company would be pushing forward on all cylinders, working 24/7 to manufacture the one commodity that Americans and the rest of the world want so badly.

You’d be wrong.

The company is only operating weekday shifts. You drive by nights and weekends and the employee parking lot is empty.

“People are curious why there aren’t any cars in the parking lot,” North Richland Hills Mayor Oscar Trevino told me.

And why is that, Mr. Mayor?

“The system got him,” the mayor said about Bowen, who is executive vice president of the company. “And he’s unhappy about it.”

The story of Bowen’s unhappiness is a cautionary tale about what can happen if Americans searching for cheaper prices send entire industries offshore to countries like Mexico and China.

Everything Bowen has warned about has come true. He warned that allowing another country to serve as our main supplier of personal protection equipment has the potential to become a national security nightmare.

Bowen declined to talk to The Watchdog for this story. He’s busy.

“There is 200 times more demand than there is supply,” he told former presidential adviser Steve Bannon on Bannon’s podcast. “My phone is ringing every two minutes. Every one minute I am getting an email.”

An examination of his warnings going back more than a dozen years tells the story.

The common theme is that during an outbreak like this, everybody wants to be his customer. But as soon as an outbreak subsides, his customers dump him and run back to China. The reason? His masks may cost a dime each, but a made-in-China mask might go for two cents.

“Last time he geared up and went three shifts a day working his tail off,” the mayor recalled. “As soon as the issue died, he didn’t have any sales. He had to pay unemployment for all these people, and he had to gear down.”

As Bowen explained to Bannon, “I’ve been preaching this American-made story since 2007. Nobody listened. The whole mass market was only interested in price. I’ve been everywhere trying to get people to listen. I’ve talked to congressmen. I’ve talked to generals. I’ve written the president. I wrote President Obama five or six letters, and he sent me a presidential proclamation suitable for framing.”

Bowen wants a guaranteed contract, not a proclamation. It’s tough to win a bid to supply U.S. hospitals through their group purchase agreements that seek the cheapest price when your competitor pays low wages, ignores environmental concerns and is subsidized by a Communist government.

Last month, he got another proclamation but no contract to go with it. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, named Prestige Ameritech the “Senate Small Business of the Week.” The citation notes that the company “has ramped up their daily production to 600,000 masks.”

The company could do so much more.

The best intentions

The company is in a building originally used by Kimberly-Clark to make medical masks. But that company moved its operations to Mexico. When Prestige Ameritech opened in 2005, it was touted as a great day for the made-in-America movement.

By 2009, the company had grown strong enough to meet the demand caused by the H1N1 swine flu outbreak. Hospitals promised to stick with him afterward, but they broke their promise. The allure of cheaper Chinese masks was too great for hospital purchasing groups to ignore.

In 2010, the company celebrated a grand “reopening” when it renamed its factory the Global Pandemic Preparedness and Response Center. The event was attended by then-Gov. Rick Perry, who said, “It’s good news for America as America becomes competitive back in this arena again.”

But the news wasn’t so good. The next year, Bowen and company president Dan Reese had to lay off 150 workers. Bowen told Wired magazine, “150 people that saved a lot of hospitals from closing their doors were rewarded by losing their jobs. And that’s not going to happen again.”

The company nearly went bankrupt. In 2012 the company took out a million-dollar loan.

Mayor Trevino recalls escorting Bowen around the Texas Capitol in Austin as Bowen made his case with state lawmakers for more government support.

“He was begging them to understand that we shouldn’t have all our masks made in China. He wanted a federal government contract that would keep him in steady business,” the mayor said, adding that Bowen wanted to help build a future stockpile for a pandemic that Bowen predicted would happen.

Trevino recalls Bowen saying, “If y’all don’t care about me in good times when everybody’s OK, how am I going to be there when you need me?”

The city wrote letters on his behalf to federal lawmakers, Trevino said.

“Everything he was saying fell on deaf ears,” the mayor said.

Or as Bowen asked in a 2017 Dallas Morning News interview, “If the government doesn’t even buy American, who will?”

In that same interview, Bowen showed stacks of dismantled office cubicles.

“Every one of those represents somebody who used to have a job,” he said, adding that he nicknamed an empty, unlit corridor in his factory the “hall of death.”

He’s tired of being “the backup guy,” he said. “Create American jobs. Buy American. … It’s hot air.”

Ramping up

That’s why if you drive by America’s No. 1 mask maker on a night or weekend, the parking lot is ghostly. But the lot isn’t completely empty. There’s a North Richland Hills police car parked outside near a police observation tower. The mayor said the business has received threats.

Bowen told CBSDFW.com that he could only make about 1 million masks a day if he ran his machines 24/7. He said that would have little impact on global demand.

He told Bannon he is ramping up, but it takes weeks to build new machines and train employees. His company’s street sign announces it is hiring.

The company is not selling to the general public or to non-American buyers. Now, it’s only selling to U.S. hospitals. But Bowen asks hospitals to sign contracts. Who can blame him?

Or as the mayor puts it, “He’ll gear back up, and he’ll produce, and they’ll probably do it to him again.”


Photo by Tom Fox, Dallas Morning News

Texas Realtor Tom Grisak Helps Attorney General Fight Bad Company

Note: The following story about Thomas Grisak appeared in the Nov. 3, 2017 Watchdog column in The Dallas Morning News.


For more than 30 years as a Realtor, Tom Grisak from Allen had a spotless record with his clients. He knew of no major complaints against him.

Until there was one.

An anonymous online post accused him of being too harsh when talking to a potential client  after he didn’t win a house listing. He says it’s not true.

“In all honesty, I should have ignored it and lived life,” he says. “But I didn’t want my clients to think I was anything less than above board.”

He hired a reputation management company he found online. The California company, Solvera Group, promised to handle his problem. He paid $10,800.

Solvera handled it, for sure. Solvera handled his negative online post and posts hurting several thousand other worried customers in a way that should get recognized as one of the more dastardly Internet schemes of all time.

The company created fake complaints and then orchestrated their removal.

The company’s strategy was brilliant in its design. To fix negative comments, the company, run by the elusive Chris Dinota, allegedly had to fool not only customers, but also Texas lawyers, state judges and even the big dog itself, Google. All of them fell for the scheme over and over. Web pages were removed from public search.

Grisak and other victims are at the center of an extraordinary lawsuit brought by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and his legal staff against Solvera. Paxton’s lawsuit appears to have helped shut down the company. Phones are disconnected, and its websites are offline. The company hasn’t responded to the lawsuit, and there’s no attorney of record for Solvera.

The Watchdog couldn’t find Dinota, the president. No personal records about him could be found. And although the suit was filed Aug. 24, he still hadn’t been served with papers. He’s tough to find. You gotta hear about this crazy company.

Remove negative online comments

Solvera’s public names were InstantComplaintRemovers.com and DefamationRemoval.com. Before the websites were taken down, they bragged of being the “#1 Rated Content Removal Solution” and promised to “Remove Complaints in as Little as 48 Hours.”

The websites said the company helped celebrities, political leaders, lawyers and doctors. The company boasted it could remove negative comments from YouTube videos, blogs, news articles, Yelp reviews and many more.

Dinota told CNN.com in a 2014 story, “We can remove something that shouldn’t be there.”

Big promises. But they were often kept. Forbes describes the elusive Dinota as “The man who duped Google into suppressing bad corporate reviews.”

How Solvera did it

This is how the attorney general says it worked:


Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton

After Realtor Grisak signed a contract, Solvera paid a blogger to post a second negative comment on the targeted post. Then it hired a Texas attorney to handle a defamation lawsuit against the complainer whom Solvera claimed it had identified (even though it’s the wrong person).

The hired lawyer would then file a lawsuit with legal papers Solvera wrote and prepared. Lawyers involved were misled.

Nobody told Grisak he was about to sue anyone. He says he never would have agreed to that. But Grisak Properties vs. Baroro is now a public record — even though that’s not his company’s actual name. Fake names were used in the fake lawsuits.

The judge in his defamation lawsuit was presented with an agreement that both plaintiff and defendant supposedly liked (even though they’re actually one and the same). Judge signed a final judgment “premised on a complete falsehood,” the attorney general’s lawsuit says.

The judgment is an order to Google and other search engines to “de-index” the troublesome web page. De-index means the page is still on the Internet, but is invisible in search results, meaning no one will find it.

Google follows judges’ orders.

So there you go. Judges, lawyers and Google have no idea what’s going on.

And what did go on? The original complainer was never found, and the second one was a dupe. It doesn’t matter. The entire web page vanishes.


Until Paxton sues.

Not so brilliant anymore.

A big case for Ken Paxton

There are names for the strategies employed: libel takedowns and de-indexing injunctions. But few others used these tactics as strategically as this company.

In a statement, Paxton says, “My office will not allow Texas consumers, attorneys and courts to be confused and deceived by this unlawful behavior.”

Like everyone else, I couldn’t find Dinota, the disappearing ex-CEO.

A Google spokesperson told me: “We have measures in place to safeguard the integrity of our search results against bad actors seeking to game the system with fraudulent court orders. We work with law enforcement to combat fraud and abuse of the judicial system and have assisted law enforcement in their ongoing efforts on this issue.”

The Realtor says: “It all became smoke and mirrors. If I’d known that’s what Solvera was planning to do, I would have run away from them so fast and they’d never hear from me again.”

He didn’t know. How could he? Now he’s helping the attorney general make things right.

DallasNews.com staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.

The Watchdog: How much do you know about protecting seniors?

Think about Grandma or Grandpa. Or your elderly dad or mom. Or maybe even you, getting older. Do you know the rights of older Texans? Do you know ways to protect them?

Let’s take The Watchdog’s Elder Care Knowledge Quiz.

The late Jack Cook of Southlake, TX.

The late Jack Cook of Southlake, TX. Dave’s favorite senior.

1. When a senior has a problem, a quick and reliable way to find professionals who can provide help is to:

a) dial the Texas 211 help line, which helps Texans connect with services they need.

b) check for pros on


c) stand on a street corner with a sign.

2. State agencies that help seniors include all of these except:

a) Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services.

b) Texas Adult Protective Services.

c) Texas attorney general.

d) Texas Department of Scam Protection.

3. The Department of Aging and Disability Services is responsible for catching violations of state and federal laws in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and home health care agencies.

True or false?

4. Which of these is a violation in a nursing home?

a) a resident not kept dressed, well groomed and clean at all times

b) treatments or care given in public, not private

c) treating a resident with disrespect

d) all of these

5. Which of these acts is considered abuse of an older person?

a) placing them in seclusion

b) humiliating and embarrassing them

c) using disparaging or derogatory terms

d) all of these

6. A door-to-door salesman comes to your door to sell a product. What is the chance that he’s telling the truth when he offers a great product for a low price that easily can’t be beat elsewhere?

a) He’s telling the truth.

b) He’s telling a lie as big as the hole in his conscience.

7. Seniors are favorite targets for scammers. Which of these are not vulnerabilities to be on the lookout for?

a) someone who wants to pave a homeowner’s driveway

b) garage door repair companies that don’t have a physical address in the area

c) financial advisers who guarantee double-digit rates of return

d) sellers of Girl Scout cookies

8. When an older adult has been scammed, the correct response is:

a) overcome initial embarrassment.

b) call the police.

c) tell relatives.

d) all of these.

9. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services does not take complaints about seniors who have been:

a) abused.

b) neglected.

c) financially exploited.

d) overcharged on electricity bills.

10. One easy way a senior can save money is to assume that most car repair diagnoses that are high-dollar recommendations deserve a second opinion elsewhere.

True or false?

11. Someone who calls and says he is from Microsoft and wants to fix a virus in your computer is:

a) correct, so give him your credit card.

b) a lying thief because Microsoft never makes calls such as this.

12. A grandchild calls on the phone and says he is in a foreign country and needs money wired immediately to him but he doesn’t want his parents to know. The correct action is to:

a) wire the money immediately because grandkids are the best.

b) call the parents and check on their child’s whereabouts.

c) make travel reservations to that foreign country.

13. A relative who gains access to an older person’s checkbook without his or her permission and spends money is:

a) a relative who will probably pay it back if someone finds out.

b) breaking the law, and the police could be called and charges filed.

14. It’s smart to be suspicious of investment opportunities offered by family members, friends and friends of friends no matter how good they sound.

True or false?

15. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott states on his website that investing in annuities “may be inappropriate for seniors because of the lengthy horizon before they begin to pay off. Sale of annuities to seniors may be unethical.”

True or false?

16. If a family member makes an official complaint about a nursing home and nursing home administrators retaliate against the resident or the family, the family should:

a) file a complaint with state regulators because that’s a violation of law.

b) accept things as they are and keep quiet.

17. When unexpected phone calls arrive from salespeople, the best defense is:

a) tape the call.

b) hang up.

c) talk to them as long as possible to learn who they are.

d) pretend you’re nuts.

18. The way to cancel a door-to-door sale is to:

a) make a phone call within 30 days of the sale to say you have changed your mind.

b) write “notice of cancellation” on a receipt and mail it back to the seller within three days (and keep a copy).

19. A senior facing a problem involving federal benefits such as Social Security or Medicare should get help by:

a) creating a petition on change.org.

b) making a funny YouTube video.

c) contacting his or her Congress member’s constituent services office.

20. When going to a seminar about a financial investment, it’s smart to make a decision going in that no matter what happens, an on-the-spot purchase won’t be made that day.

True or false?

Answers: 1-a; 2-d; 3-True; 4-d; 5-d; 6-b; 7-d; 8-d; 9-d; 10-True; 11-b; 12-b; 13-b; 14-True; 15-True; 16-a; 17-b; 18-b; 19-c; 20-True.

If you scored higher than 75 percent (15 of 20 correct) you know your stuff. Spread the word.

Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.

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The Watchdog: Friend’s death from MRSA changed how I saw the world

I kept thinking about my old newspaper friend Chris Neely. In recent weeks, every time I drove by the cemetery where he is buried, something tugged at me to find his grave.

First, I asked my youngest son to jog through the cemetery and look for his tombstone. But that didn’t work. Austin couldn’t find it.

My son suggested I use the Internet to find the grave, and he was right. A map on a website pinpointed the location.

I found the stone, but it was faded and hard to read. I rubbed chalk along the stone and the dates popped out along with an image of a typewriter and the words, “Heaven is a funnier place now.”

That tug was a reminder that this week marks the 10th anniversary of his passing.

Chris Neely

Chris Neely

Of all the loons I’ve worked with at newspapers, Chris was the quietest in person, yet the funniest in print. He was a columnist, like me, at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. His wheelhouse was humor, and he was on a roll. In his final year, he won a national award as a humor columnist and also witnessed the birth of his only son.

Then, at 37, after a routine surgical operation, suddenly, he was dead. How and why he died came as a shock. Over the decade since, it changed the way I look at the world.

Simple surgery had led to a fatal infection. Chris was infected with MRSA bacteria in the hospital. Antibiotics couldn’t save him. One week he was making funny in his column; the next week he was gone.

Actually a fan

In my grief, I began to learn about MRSA, and how it’s handled in Texas. I didn’t like what I saw. But first a little about Chris and why the world was robbed when we lost his talent.

The story I love the most was the one where he decided to poke fun at Jerry Lewis before the Labor Day telethon. He wrote that the telethon was “a painful mix of bitterness and mayhem. But there was just no looking away.”

“Quarts of Vitalis, ruffled polyester dress shirts, spreading pools of flop sweat,” Chris wrote. Calling Lewis “puffy,” he added that Lewis “is seldom on stage during the telethon and barely moves when he is.”

A few days later, Chris’ phone at work rang. A voice on the other end stated, “Please hold for Mr. Jerry Lewis.”

Chris figured it was a joke, but he turned on his tape machine.

Then came the famous voice asking Chris why he was so “mean-spirited.”

“This may surprise you, but I’m actually a fan,” Chris answered.

Lewis invited the columnist to be his guest at the next telethon. Only the birth of his son kept Chris from going.

Mixed news

MRSA infections are most often spread in hospitals and nursing homes. In some cases, the infection is immune to antibiotics. Thousands die each year, though accurate statistics are hard to find.

In the decade since Chris’ death, in terms of MRSA, there’s bad news and good news.

Bad news: Texas does not require MRSA cases to be reported. So the extent of infections statewide isn’t known. The year Chris died, the Texas Legislature created a pilot program that measured MRSA cases in three of the state’s 254 counties. When the program ended, its recommendations noted that it would be cost-prohibitive to report statistics statewide.

Lawmakers also created a reporting system to track the infections, but they didn’t fund it, so it never happened.

More bad news: A study released last week shows that MRSA bacteria is not only found in some health care facilities, but also in homes.

Good news: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that MRSA infections in hospitals and the death rate are declining, probably the benefit from a long public campaign reminding health care professionals and the public to take greater precaution. Wash hands with greater frequency. Keep surfaces and objects clean. Cover open wounds properly.

I saw someone I admired die so quickly and surprisingly. Someone with such a bright future as a humorist, husband and new father whose love for retro stars like Jerry Lewis was never forwarded to his baby son.

That’s where I changed. I began to take better notice of what’s happening around me.

When I go to a health care facility, I ask doctors and nurses if they’ve washed their hands. I tell them I’m worried about MRSA.

I know it sounds awkward, but I explain that I had this funny friend Chris Neely, and he’s no longer around to make me laugh.

Follow Dave Lieber on Twitter at @Dave Lieber


How to avoid MRSA:

• Wash hands with soap and water regularly.

• Don’t share personal items such as towels, soaps, razors and ointments.

• Don’t take antibiotics as a preventive measure for avoiding infection.

• Properly cover open wounds.

• When in a hospital, make sure that doctors and nurses clean their hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based sanitizer.

SOURCE: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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Watchdog Tip of the Day: How to get veterans benefits

Are you having trouble getting your veterans benefits. The Dallas Morning News Watchdog columnist Dave Lieber shares a shortcut with you to get it done. In our Watchdog Video Tip of the Day, we try to solve problems in under a minute.
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The Watchdog mystery shops a Dallas congressional office

This could have been a Watchdog report about how a congressman’s office messed up. If that were true, nobody would be surprised. But it’s not.

Life in this low-rated 113th Congress is apparently so difficult for all involved that when I told the congressional office that this was a positive story, at first, they didn’t believe me.

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation won a 2013 writing award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists

It begins when I hear a complaint from Kala King of Garland. Her 80-year-old mother breaks her hip and receives physical therapy through home health care. The agency providing PT charges $1,200 for six sessions. But Medicare pays $2,083.

“Medicare paid nearly twice the amount that the agency billed the claim for,” King tells me.

Believing it’s a computer error, King calls Medicare to let them know they paid too much. What she hears surprises her. The Medicare representative tells her that there’s a standard amount of payment for such a service, and the system automatically pays that amount no matter the actual billing amount, even if it’s higher.

“This makes no sense to me,” King says. “It’s not cost-efficient. It just seems crazy to me and a waste of money. What am I missing here?”

Kayla King

Kala King

King says she contacted her congressman, Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, but she never received an answer. Instead, she says, she starts receiving Sessions’ newsletter.

News of this kind aggravates The Watchdog. When you contact elected officials, The Watchdog believes, they should respond in a timely and accurate manner.

But when King tells me she contacted Sessions through his website, I realize that’s the problem. Website communication with any government agency is often a big fail. Nothing works better, I believe, than a phone call or, even better, an actual office visit. Give a face and name to a problem. I suggest to King that she get in touch with a Sessions caseworker in person.

As readers of The Dallas Morning News Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, I decide to follow this journey. This is like mystery shopping a government office, similar to the way major companies send secret shoppers into their retail stores to see how shoppers are treated. Can King get a straight answer? If she can’t, you’ll know in another negative story about the 113th Congress that will surprise nobody.

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Sessions caseworker Jennifer Lang of the Dallas office is assigned the case. She is the Medicare and Social Security specialist. It takes several weeks of back and forth with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, but Lang gets an explanation. She tells King. King tells me. Now I’ll tell you.

Jennifer Lang

Jennifer Lang

Medicare uses something called a “prospective payment system” to make these payments. The services involving home health agency visits are bundled. So even though the only service King’s mother receives is physical therapy, it’s bundled with other services such as nursing, occupational therapy and speech-language therapy that she does not receive.

A Medicare official tells the congressman’s caseworker that sometimes the billing amount comes in low and, as happened with King’s mother, the payment is higher. Other times, the billing amount is high, but bill payment is lower. Either way, the Medicare official explains, they cancel each other out. Really?

The Medicare official explains that this system is better than the old system, which paid per visit. The problem was that service agencies had a financial incentive to make more visits, even if the visits were unnecessary, so they could make more money. The new system is supposed to cut back on that kind of abuse by creating standard payment amounts. At least, that’s the logic.

King isn’t pleased with the answer. She believes, frankly, that it’s dumb to overpay. Why not simply pay the billed amount, whatever it is, rather than a fixed charge? Why not cap the amount? Why not depend on a doctor’s letter to determine what’s needed? Those are King’s ideas.

But Medicare makes the rules.

What I like is that King gets her answer in detail. This is what the Founding Fathers imagined when they created a U.S. House. Hundreds of representatives from small districts across the nation, running for election every two years, accountable to the people. We all know it often doesn’t work that way.

Medicare announced in June that it’s changing some of its payment rules next year. Medicare payouts to home health agencies are about $18 billion a year. The changes will save about $290 million. That’s a drop in the bucket. At least it’s something.

I wanted to tell you about Kala King, the asker of questions, and Jennifer Lang, the answerer, because this is the way representative democracy is supposed to work.

“I figured if this happens in our bill, it happens in lots of bills,” King says. “And if you multiply it across the United States, I figure it’s a very large waste of money.”

Lang says, “We understand that sometimes it’s hard for consumers to deal with government agencies…. I was just doing my job.”

Too bad that alone is today’s world is enough to muster special attention.

U.S. Rep Pete Sessions

U.S. Rep Pete Sessions

Here’s an alert to all federal, state, county, local and school district officials: You never know when a constituent asking you for help is actually a mystery shopper for The Watchdog. I’ll be doing this again. And again.

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation won a 2013 writing award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists

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Are you tired of fighting the bank, the credit card company, the electric company and the phone company? They can be worse than scammers the way they treat customers. A popular book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, shows you how to fight back — and win! The book is available at WatchdogNation.com as a hardcover, CD audio book, e-book and hey, what else do you need? The author is The Watchdog columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Visit our store. Now revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber


Fighting financial exploitation of elderly

I keep meeting older adults who have lost money in exploitative financial investments.

There was the financial adviser who convinced his clients to invest $50,000 in a life settlements, but the company they invested in was put out of business by state regulators. Read that here.

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong helps people save money

There was the 79-year-old man who lost $20,000 to an ex-convict in a home foundation scam. Read that here.

There were the retired teachers getting hit with postcards enticing them to invest in financial instruments that are loaded with excess fees. Read that here.

As I continue to research why the elderly are so vulnerable, I receive troubling letters from adult children of older adults.

Christine writes me that her father fell for a Jamaican prize scam and lost $50,000. “He is so upset with the final realization that he lost all of his money that he won’t let me help him,” she writes.

Annette writes that her father lives alone and is inundated with mail announcing that he has won lotteries, sweepstakes and other contests. All he has to do is send money to claim the rest of the prize. “He believes the windfall of money will land in his mailbox,” she writes. “This encompasses his daily life. It’s all he talks about, the money he is waiting for.” But it never comes.

There’s a name for this: elder investment fraud and financial exploitation. Although the problem is expected to get worse as more Americans grow older, initial signs are that one possible solution is coming out of Texas.

A pilot program originated by Baylor College of Medicine in Houston looks at how older adults may lose some mental abilities that helped them avoid risky situations. The medical term is cognitive impairment, and one-third of all adults older than 71 show some signs of it.

Couple that with a strong desire for more money, as shown by Christine’s and Annette’s fathers, and you’ve got the making of a financial catastrophe.

The Baylor program trains Texas doctors to detect warning signs of mental impairment that may make people susceptible to fraud. The doctors are shown how to report what they find to authorities such as the Texas State Securities Board and Adult Protective Services.

The experiment has its roots in a revelation by former Securities and Exchange Commissioner Christopher Cox. He said a few years ago that his elderly mother, besieged by throat cancer and unable to talk, was pestered by salesmen with a barrage of annuity schemes and bad mortgage offers.

“Even though my father was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, the brokers would prey upon him as well,” Cox said.

The products horrified Cox: They included annuities with huge penalties and a low-rate 30-year mortgage with a short-term loan that had a balloon payment and a teaser rate.

“That would have cost my parents their home when it came due,” Cox said.

Robert Roush, an associate professor of geriatrics at Baylor, heard about Cox’s statements and decided to pursue the matter as a field of study.

He learned that older adults can be especially susceptible to schemes where the true penalties of the investment are hidden in fine print. As adults grow older, they may take greater risks. Cognitive impairment is found in half of all adults older than 85, some researchers say.

When baby boomers reach senior citizen status, 1 in 5 Americans will be older than 65.

“We’ve got a large, growing population that is going to roughly double in the next 20 years,” Roush said. “It will change the way this country operates.”

He wants to change the way older adults are protected, too. His project is growing. Regulators from 30 states, including the Texas State Securities Board, have joined.

The program is built around red-flag questions that a doctor can ask a patient. Samples from the project’s Clinician’s Pocket Guide include: Who manages your money day to day? How is that going? Do you regret or worry about financial decisions you’ve recently made?

In Texas, almost 70 doctors participated in the study. About half reported to state authorities that they encountered potential victims before they were hurt and, in some cases, after they lost money.

June 15 was designated World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. The Investor Protection Trust released a study that day showing that 1 in 5 Americans 65 and over has been victimized by financial fraud. That’s 7 million people.

During his research, Roush learned about older adults hurt through cellphone contracts, credit card offers, car loans and “on almost every financial transaction you can think of.”

“If there’s a hell, those scammers are the ones that will burn the hottest,” he said. “At least I hope so.”

His project, if successful, may turn up the heat on them here, too.

# # #


You run out of money by the end of the month.

You regret or worry about financial decisions.

Your bills are confusing, and you have trouble paying them.

You don’t feel confident making big decisions alone.

You don’t understand financial decisions others are making for you.

You give loans or gifts that you can’t afford.

Your children are pressuring you to give them money or change your will.

Someone is accessing your accounts, and money is disappearing.

You can’t reach your financial adviser.

Source: Baylor College of Medicine’s Texas Consortium Geriatric Education Center.

# # #


Here’s the “Pocket Guide on Elder Investment Fraud and Financial Exploitation.”

Research investment advisors at the Securities and Exchange Commission website here.

Spend some time at the National Committee for Prevention of Elder Abuse website.

Learn about the Duke University student that shows that one in three people over 70 have memory impairment

Read about the Investor Protection Trust study that showed  that one out of five Americans older than 65 have been victimized by financial fraud.

# # #

Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.

Dentists angry about non-dental teeth whitening clinics

If you want white teeth, you face a dilemma. Do you go to a dentist and take advantage of his or her expertise — and pay a little more? Or do you visit a spa, non-dental clinic or even a mall kiosk to get it done at a lower price?

Dentists say only they have the expertise to find problems with your teeth and mouth that could adversely affect the whitening process. Owners of non-dental establishments and the companies that supply them with “laser” lights and bleaching materials say their process is just as safe. In most cases, dentists charge more, but you get their expertise, too.

About 10 states regulate non-dental teeth whitening procedures.

For the rest, it’s the buyer beware.

I don’t know what it says about our culture — I’ll leave that to cultural anthropologists — that Americans feel the need to have the whitest smiles possible. But I do worry that this is a relatively new business that is unstudied, unregulated in most places and, like the Internet, has to be looked at in the coming years.

The sign outside Lottie Holmes' clinic

The sign outside Lottie Holmes' clinic

For help with this, I visited a spa in my neighborhood that has a white banner outside announcing “Laser Teeth Whitening” hanging outside. Owner Lottie Holmes of Lottie’s Skin & Hair Clinic in Watauga, Texas says the banner is working: more customers are coming in to improve their smiles.

For more than a year, she has offered laser teeth-whitening services in her salon, part of a growing, relatively new industry that is stealing business from dentists.

“We jumped on it because it’s painless, noninvasive and safe,” Holmes says.

The service uses a light, not a laser, although most call it that. The staffers who use it receive one day of training.

My home state of Texas has no rules about who can perform laser teeth-whitening. Holmes is a licensed cosmetologist, but she doesn’t need any type of license to operate the light machine.

And because there are no state rules, if anyone complains about teeth-whitening practices at a clinic, spa or any other place (like a mall kiosk), state officials have no choice but to turn them away.

Lisa Jones, director of enforcement for the Texas State Board of Dental Examiners, says, “We do get complaints about these clinics operating, but since we don’t have jurisdiction over them, what we do is refer them to local law enforcement authorities.” Legislation would be needed to regulate teeth-whitening businesses.

Members of the Texas Dental Association say they are frustrated not so much by the independent operators but by the state dental board, which could enforce the state’s dental law more forcefully. Some dentists say they believe these businesses operate an illegal dentistry practice.

Austin dentist Mark Peppard is chairman of an association task force studying the illegal practice of dentistry in Texas, “specifically tooth-whitening,” he says.

Dentists, he says, are concerned that nondentists won’t recognize tooth decay, gum disease or other maladies before applying bleaching agents and what’s called accelerated light to stimulate the chemicals to clean the teeth. Long-term damage is possible, they say.

“It’s simple to say, ‘I drink Coke or coffee.’ But what if disease or a massive cavity is causing a tooth to get darker?” Peppard says.

Nondental technicians, especially those at malls, he says, ask customers to place substances and trays in their own mouth so that the technicians are not actually touching the mouth area — and, technically, not practicing dentistry.

Dentist David Tillman worries that the “caustic chemicals” used in treatments can harm patients if applied by someone other than a trained dentist or dental staffer.

Mary Swift, a dentist at Dallas Laser Dentistry, says dentists are allowed to offer a higher concentration of the bleaching chemical than nondentists. Dentists can offer hydrogen peroxide at 35 percent, but nondentists must offer 10 percent or less.

“Protecting the gums, controlling sensitivity, the concentration of bleach, the type of light source — those are all questions you should ask the guy around the corner,” she says.

Swift charges $600 to $1,000 for teeth-whitening services.

At her clinic, Holmes charges $249, although a follow-up visit, if necessary, may cost an extra $50.

Holmes says that she is well aware of dentists’ concerns but that she knows what she is doing. She protects gums from damage, and her clients don’t suffer from teeth sensitivity problems because of the equipment she uses, she says. Her facility is sanitary, she adds, and she hasn’t heard any complaints.

Lottie Holmes and her laser teeth whitening machine

Lottie Holmes and her laser teeth whitening machine

Tillman says that “until complaints are brought forth, these businesses are probably going to keep going.”

A quick check at the Better Business Bureau found very few complaints, but no specific state agency takes complaints about this.

Joshua Granson, vice president of Beyond Dental & Health, the company that sold Holmes the machine and trained her staff, explains: “We sell to medical spas and salons, people that have training in hygiene. We still want our products represented in an environment that is clean and nice. We don’t want to sell to just anybody.”

Peppard, of the Texas Dental Association, warns: “Just because you see it on TV or in a magazine doesn’t mean it’s safe. It’s not as safe as you think it is. Significant problems can arise from this.

“Instead of just doing something on the spur of the moment, think about how it will affect your teeth. Ask yourself, ‘What should I be worried about? Why shouldn’t I go to a dentist about this?'”

Many customers think about price before anything else, but he figured out a way to combat that argument. He only charges $300.