Ex-insurance agent sentenced to 10 years in prison for financial elder abuse
News: 2016 Press Release
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — Joseph Anthony Mele, 31, of Ventura was sentenced yesterday to 10 years in state prison after pleading no contest to multiple felony counts including financial elder abuse, grand theft and embezzlement.
A former insurance agent, Mele gained the trust of two elderly victims, age 93 and 74, and acted as their financial planner. He purchased, sold and repurchased long-term annuities without their knowledge, which ultimately resulted in the victims losing over $2 million combined.
Mele twisted and churned the victims' policies, a deceptive practice of rewriting annuities in order to obtain additional commissions under the guise of providing better returns. Mele earned hundreds of thousands of dollars in commissions through these deceptive practices and caused the victims to incur over $650,000 in surrender fees, penalties and lost premiums.
Thanks to the persistence of Department of Insurance Investigator Tamara Kessler, the victims received all of the surrender fees, penalties and interest back from the insurance companies. One victim feared she might lose her home, but the recovered money allowed her to stay.
In addition to these deceptive sales practices, Mele advised the 93-year-old victim to sign blank checks totaling over $800,000 so he could invest the funds for her. The money was not invested, but instead deposited into Mele's personal bank account and used for entertainment, elaborate vacations, gambling, and plastic surgery.
"Joseph Mele's callous scam targeted vulnerable seniors with the intent to illegally enrich his lifestyle," said Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones. "Thanks to the superior work of the California Department of Insurance Enforcement Branch, Santa Barbara District Attorney's Office, Santa Barbara Police Department and State Franchise Tax Board, the elderly victims in this case have received justice. I am committed to working with California's District Attorneys to end elder abuse scams across the state."
Mele was remanded to custody to begin serving his 10-year sentence at the conclusion of Thursday's sentencing hearing.
- Joseph Anthony Mele's arrest photo. https://www.flickr.com/photos/ca_dept_insurance/18444410503/in/album-72157654932385021/
- Joseph Anthony Mele was doing business as Mele & Associates Senior Insurance Services in Ventura.
- He was arrested on June 3, 2015.
- Consumers considering annuities as an investment, should read all materials carefully, have a trusted family member or friend review all documents and contact the Department of Insurance Consumer Services toll-free hotline at 800-927-4357 with any questions or concerns.
- Commissioner Jones has sponsored several pieces of legislation that provide new protections for seniors and consumers buying annuities, to avoid these types of scams.
- AB689 (Blumenfield) requires agents and brokers to verify that an annuity transaction is appropriate for the consumer, based on an evaluation of a number of factors. In cases where the sale is found inappropriate, the agent faces revocation of their license, fines and restoration of the consumers' financial losses.
- AB2347 (Gonzalez) requires enhanced annuity disclosures to make sure all insurance investment annuities have consumer protections that are easy to read and understand.
- AB793 (Eng) makes the cross-selling of reverse equity mortgages and annuities illegal. The law is designed to stop the predatory practices of insurance agents and brokers who know that a senior has recently acquired a reverse mortgage to inappropriately steer them into tying up those same funds in an annuity or other non-casualty product.
The California Department of Insurance, established in 1868, is the largest consumer protection agency in California. Insurers collect $289 billion in premiums annually in California. Since 2011 the California Department of Insurance received more than 1,000,000 calls from consumers and helped recover over $394 million in claims and premiums. Please visit the Department of Insurance web site at www.insurance.ca.gov. Non-media inquiries should be directed to the Consumer Hotline at 800.927.HELP or 213.897.8921. Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf (TDD), please dial 800.482.4833.