It's not illegal for a car salesman, roofer, painter or Realtor to overcharge seniors, but it is rotten, said Sandy Belinsky, a volunteer for the state-run senior advocacy group Seniors vs. Crime, a special project of the Florida Attorney General.
"A lot of times seniors will go to the police department but the police department can't help them, they say it's civil. It's not a crime. They have to get a lawyer," Belinsky said.
She is not a lawyer, however, 78-year-old Belinsky is a senior trained by the Florida attorney general to intervene when seniors need rescuing from bad deals.
Belinsky spends her Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11 a.m.- 3 p.m. with a fellow volunteer at the Paddock Mall in Ocala, at an storefront-turned-office shared with the Ocala Police Department.
When a senior is taken advantage of but a crime wasn't committed, police will turn over the case to Belinsky and the other volunteers at the mall.
Belinsky and the Ocala-area Seniors vs. Crime volunteers have handled 54 cases this year and recovered $191,311 for seniors this year putting in 770 volunteer hours, Ocala police said.
"Car dealers, roofers, landscapers, spray services, tree cutters, painters, pets that have been ordered online, stores that sold them something and wouldn't come out to fix the appliance," Belinsky said.
When a senior signs a contract with an unscrupulous, fast-talking salesman, it's a legal agreement, even if the senior is grossly overcharged or suffers from a diminished mental capacity.
Often seniors will discover they paid too much when family members or friends learn of the deal.
Belinksy said she recently discovered several local car salesmen were talking seniors into trading in their new cars for older cars that weren't worth as much.
Belinsky just got results for a 95-year-old couple.
"He's a WWII disabled veteran using a walker," Belinsky said. "They came in and wanted to have a car deal undone."
Belinsky said the couple ended up trading in their 2017 SUV with 10,000 miles on it for a 2017 car with 40,000 miles at a car tent sale.
"They got one of these big flyers with numbers on it, it said come to the tent sale, match the numbers win money," Belinsky said. "They went in there hoping to win some money and ended up leaving with a different car. "
Belinsky said the salesman talked the couple into the car that they didn't really want or need.
"The car they traded in was worth $2,000 more than they car they were getting," Belinsky said. "They believed it had 10,000 miles on it but one paper it said 46,000 miles but they didn't see that. They signed all of these papers shoved at them one after the after, sign here sign here. He signed and she signed."
Belinsky said when the couple tried calling the dealership, salesmen told them their car had been auctioned off and was gone.
A neighbor referred the couple to Belinsky and Seniors vs. Crime.
"So we called the car dealer," Belinsky said. "We got results."
Belinsky said the owner of the dealership put her in touch with the manager who arranged for the couple to come back to the dealership.
Magically, their SUV was back.
"When they got there, the car lot manager said, 'How would you like to have your car back?''" Belinsky said. "The car was there! The SUV. They had told them it was gone, no way they could recover it, it had gone to auction."
Belinsky said the couple got back their original SUV but now it had 500 more miles on it than when they traded it in. Somebody had been driving it, she said.
Belinsky gets similar complaints every other month.
"It happens five, six, seven times a year," Belinsky said.
Belinsky said she's also discovered car salesman adding thousands of dollars in unnecessary fees to seniors' contracts without them knowing or slipping in extended warranties.
Most extended warranties can be canceled at any time and the balance of the contract will be pro-rated if you ask for your money back, Belinsky said.
Belinsky serves the Ocala office but there are Seniors vs. Crime offices around the state in most large cities and many smaller ones. Click here to find a list of locations.