Former insurance agent sentenced to 10 years in prison
SANTA BARBARA— Kudos to our California Statewide Law Enforcement Association (CSLEA) Fraternal Order of Police Member, California Department of Insurance Investigator Tamara Kessler, who secured $650,000 in refunded money for two elderly victims of insurance fraud by ex-insurance agent Joseph Anthony Mele, 31, of Ventura.
"The most enjoyable and rewarding part of my job is when I can help prevent unscrupulous insurance agents or brokers from taking advantage of vulnerable victims, such as the elderly," Investigator Kessler.
Mele was sentenced on January 14, 2016 to 10 years in state prison after pleading no contest to multiple felony counts including financial elder abuse, grand theft and embezzlement.
The former insurance agent, 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 more than $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 CSLEA Member and 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.
"This past year, I was able to return $1,200,000 in surrender penalties and fees to two seniors who were victimized by a particularly deceptive agent who acted as their financial advisor who twisted and churned annuities resulting in significant losses for the victims and lined his pockets with a significant chunk of a 93-year-old’s life savings," said Investigator Kessler. "One of my victims was close to losing her home, but this restitution allowed her to stay. These losses would be devastating to most individuals, but they are particularly devastating to seniors who no longer have the ability to work and who may not have someone looking out for them or assisting them with their finances.”
In addition to 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."
"One can only send a great big thank you to CSLEA Member, Investigator Kessler for taking to heart what these senior citizens lost and stood to lose and pushing for a reimbursement of surrender fees, penalties and interest from the insurance companies," said CSLEA President Alan Barcelona. "She may not view herself as a hero, but many others do. Great job."