Former insurance agent scammed many Central Valley seniors: How to protect yourself from becoming a victim

By Megan Lerma

A former Clovis insurance agent will face serious fraud, embezzlement and identity theft charges according to investigators with the California Department of Insurance. Gregory Alan Steen, 52, is accused of convincing senior citizens to name him executor of their wills, which gave him control of their finances, officials said. He allegedly targeted dozens of seniors and misappropriated more than $56,000 for his own benefit.

Officials said Paula Ramirez, 40, of Clovis, Lisa Bennett, 44, of Fresno and Sara Vann, 37, of Studio City, allegedly conspired with Steen and will also be charged in the case.

Patrick Storm, Deputy Press Secretary for the California Department of Insurance (CDI), said Steen was experienced at stealing from his clients.

“He was very skilled at what he was doing and gained the trust of the elderly population,” Storm said. “The worst part about this is that many of the victims signed over their trusts or made him the executor of their will and then after they passed, he failed to follow their wishes and used their assets for his own personal gain.”

Although Steen was arrested in January and his license was suspended, he continued to swindle more seniors after his arrest and release from jail. Steen will face 13 felony counts of both grand theft and embezzlement and 12 felony counts of identity theft.

Storm said it’s important for people to investigate an agent’s background before doing business with them.

“The vast majority of agents are very professional and have the best interests of their clients at heart,” Storm said. “We recommend that you research anyone you do business with, especially when it has to do with your finances, to make sure they have a license, are in good standing and don’t have any complaints against them.”

Storm said people should be very cautious when it comes to appointing financial control of your wills and assets.

“Make sure you have someone else in your family or a close friend look through all the paperwork, and never feel that you’re pressured to sign something,” Storm said. “Take your time and don’t make a rash decision, because if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.”

Storm said when crimes like these occur, there’s always more than once victim.

“It’s a serious crime that causes a multi-billion dollar drain on our economy because one fraud is paid for by all consumers,” Storm said. “It’s not a victimless crime, so it’s important that we’re all aware of it and try to do whatever we can to put an end to it.”

Corporal Dustin Dodd with the Clovis Police Department said factors like a weak economy have contributed to the increase in cases of identity theft.

“People are living on credit cards more frequently now, and with increased technology, you have more people with access to the Internet and cell phones that are now using credit cards to make purchases with their phones,” Dodd said. “There are a litany of different scams going around and different ways they’re able to victimize people.”

Dodd said seniors are more at risk for these types of crimes for one main reason.

“The bad guys tend to go where the money is,” Dodd said. “While seniors tend to be on a fixed income, they also tend to have fewer bills and they have a lifetime of assets they’ve acquired versus someone who is building a house or just opened up credit cards and doesn’t have a high credit limit.”

Dodd said people can avoid becoming victims of identity theft by not putting any of their personal information on the Internet unless they deal with a reliable business.

“When you make online bill payments to PG&E or Chase Bank for example, you’re actually dealing with a computer and the computer is not going to steal from you,” Dodd said. “Computers don’t have the intent to steal, but people do, and reputable businesses are not going to reach out and contact you for your information.”

Dodd also recommends not letting your personal debit card out of your sight.

“If you hand your debit card to somebody, that card is linked to your checking account and your personal money,” Dodd said. “If you have a credit card and you hand it to someone, at a restaurant for example, that’s the bank’s money and that’s their credit, which is easier to deal with if there’s an identity theft issue.”

Dodd said he advises people to get free copies of their credit report from TransUnion, Equifax and Experian credit bureaus to review once a year.

“If you’re concerned about your identity, get a copy of your credit report from the major credit bureaus and go over them with a fine tooth comb,” Dodd said. “Make sure there’s no accounts or transactions that are open that you’re not aware of or didn’t approve of.”

Dodd said that although these scams can be very devastating to a person’s life, the police department is very thorough with its investigations.

“We contact the victims, we contact the banks, we write search warrants and we get the information we need,” Dodd said. “In Clovis, we’re going to exhaust every lead we have to solve the problem and help the victims get their lives back on track.”