"Sweep" of Funeral Homes by FTC and State Finds
Important Consumer Protection Violations
"Protections are crucial because people often are buying something expensive with very little time and very high stress," Miller says.
DES MOINES.-- Attorney General Tom Miller and officials from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission announced today that they conducted a statewide funeral home "sweep" -- where test shoppers visit funeral homes to determine if the homes provide customers with mandatory price lists and other crucial disclosures required by law to safeguard consumers.
The Iowa "sweep" is part of a push by the FTC to drive up compliance with its "Funeral Rule," a set of regulations established in 1984 to help consumers by requiring that funeral homes give consumers important price and other information consistently and automatically. The Iowa/FTC "sweep" is the first to test compliance in cities over an entire state, not just a major metropolitan area.
"These requirements are crucial," Miller said. "The law gives funeral customers special protection because they often are spending a lot of money when they have very little time and very high stress."
Miller noted that all Iowa funeral homes were alerted last February that the State and FTC would be mounting an "effort to check for compliance with the rule" in Iowa.
He said the first round of the sweep was conducted last September, with assistance of about thirty trained volunteers from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). Miller said 62 of Iowa's 379 funeral homes were visited in fifteen cities around the state. Significant consumer violations were determined at 18 of the funeral homes, and a second round of "shops" was conducted at those funeral homes in October and November.
FTC Chicago Regional Director Steve Baker said that six funeral homes again failed to provide the general price list as required by the Funeral Rule. He said the six were notified January 9 of the violations and were given an alternative of facing legal action in state or federal court, or participating in the "Funeral Rule Offenders Program," or FROP.
Under FROP, which is sponsored by the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) and the FTC, funeral homes found in violation of the Rule may opt to participate in a five-year training, compliance and testing program. They also pay administrative fees to the NFDA and a payment to the U.S. Treasury of 0.8% of the home's average annual gross sales over the past three years.
The FTC has authority to seek civil penalties up to $11,000 per violation of the Funeral Rule if legal action is undertaken in lieu of the FROP program. The State also could pursue civil action and penalties in district court.
Under terms of the Funeral Rule Offenders Program, the names of FROP funeral homes are not disclosed. Baker said the FROP program is proving to be an effective way to drive up compliance with the Funeral Rule. He said the FTC has determined that a system including education, sweeps, and FROP or legal action is proving most effective to drive up compliance with the crucial Funeral Rule.
Baker said four of the six Iowa funeral homes notified have chosen to participate in the Funeral Rule Offenders Program, and two have not notified the FTC of their decision.
Miller's comments on the Funeral Rule
"The Funeral Rule is a fundamental consumer protection measure, and there is no good reason any funeral home should be violating it," Miller said. "The FTC has notified every funeral home in the country about it, and we notified Iowa homes directly that we would be checking for compliance. It's the law, and it's important for consumers."
"Most people don't have to buy funeral merchandise and services very often, and that makes it difficult," he said. "Funerals are often costly, typically the third largest consumer expense after a home or vehicle. And it's especially difficult when people are grieving or under stress and have very little time. People deserve the special protection of the Funeral Rule."
Miller said the FTC rule was issued in 1984 as a result of historic abuse in the area of funeral sales.
The Funeral Rule requires funeral homes to give consumers who visit a funeral home a copy of a general price list that consumers can use to comparison shop. The list also must disclose that consumers do not have to purchase a casket if the deceased is to be cremated without a viewing, as well as other important information about legal rights. The Rule also makes clear to consumers that they do not have to buy a package deal. It also requires funeral homes to give consumers itemized lists of the goods and services they have selected, so that they can be sure to pay only for items they've chosen or that state law requires.
Miller said the AARP was instrumental in conducting the sweep. A formal training at nine ICN sites was done to prepare the volunteers for conducting careful and uniform "shops" at the homes and to prepare careful written reports after their visits.
Miller recognized Don Koroch, State Director of the AARP, and Don and Betty Winston, AARP volunteers, for their assistance.
Miller also recognized Dennis Britson, Director of the Regulated Industries Unit of the Securities Bureau, Insurance Division, Department of Commerce. Members of the Regulated Industries Unit participated in the training and the initial "shops."
Tips for Consumers
Miller said consumers planning funerals can better protect themselves and their families from unnecessary and unexpected expenses by taking several steps: