Looking for a retirement community, assisted living or nursing home for yourself or a loved one? You’ll find a flock of businesses eager to guide you through the elder housing maze, claiming their local experts can find the perfect place at no charge.

But elder advocates say seniors and their families need to be aware of what they’re getting when they say yes to free senior placement services. These businesses, springing up around South Florida as entrepreneurs get in on the latest elder-care trend, are unregulated and require no special licensing or training.

They can be opened by anyone with enough cash to put up a website, and the quality varies widely. Some are small local companies run by seasoned professionals who work with seniors face-to-face and take them on facility tours. Others are national online outfits or franchise operations with work-at-home consultants who do business over the telephone and never have set foot in the retirement facilities they’re recommending.

They all get paid the same way: through their network of care facilities that give them commissions, usually 50 to 100 percent of a month’s rent, when seniors move in and stay.

“We are not saying [placement services] are a lot of bad apples. We are just saying consumers need to be cautious,” said David Spiegel, an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission who specializes in senior consumers. “Deciding where someone will live is an important decision and they need to approach it with care.”

Spiegel handled a settlement two months ago involving two senior placement companies, both offering franchises, on charges they misled consumers.

One, California-based ABCSP Inc. — whose franchises do business in Florida as Always Best Care — allegedly falsely implied its recommendations were based on personal knowledge of retirement communities, the FTC said. Officials at ABCSP’s corporate office, and at a Lake Worth franchise location, could not be reached for comment.

The other, CarePatrol Inc., said it had care consultants in every state and monitored facilities based on the most recent state inspections, the FTC said. But Chuck Bongiovanni, CarePatrol’s owner and CEO, said the allegations involved a mistake on his website, which he changed, and not his business practices.

“Everyone sees senior placement now as a get-rich-quick scheme,” said Bongiovanni, a former medical social worker who started CarePatrol in Arizona 17 years ago. He sells franchises for $44,500 in 37 states — and just started in Florida.

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