DES MOINES — A Nashua investment adviser accused of illegally selling advice to veterans must change her business practices and pay a fine under a settlement with the Iowa Attorney General.
The case spurred a state law passed last year that increases consumer protections for veterans applying for benefits.
The Attorney General sued Sonya Ackerson of Nashua and her business, Advocate 4 the Aging LLC, in February 2018 alleging she charged fees for veterans’ benefits assistance without being federally accredited. She also failed to disclose to consumers that she was not licensed or registered to provide estate planning advice and violated Iowa’s Door-to-Door Sales Act, the lawsuit alleged.
Under federal law, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs accredits those authorized to act as an agent, attorney, or representative of a VA-recognized veterans’ service organization to assist in preparing, presenting, or processing VA benefits claims. According to VA records, neither Ackerson nor her business is an accredited representative.
Under the consent judgment entered Feb. 13 by Polk County District Judge Heather Lauber, Sonya Ackerson of Nashua admitted violating the Door-to-Door Sales Act but denied other allegations. She must pay a civil penalty of $7,500 and follow several procedures required under Iowa law, including providing disclosures and notices of cancellation to consumers and avoiding misrepresentations. She also cannot call herself a “Professional Financial Advisor Extraordinaire” or provide services associated with veterans benefits.
If she violates the consent judgment, Ackerson would be permanently barred from owning or operating any business in Iowa that offers door-to-door sales and face fines of $5,000 a day per violation.
Ackerson’s case highlighted the problem of businesses selling benefits services to veterans, despite a federal law prohibiting it. To address shortcomings in Iowa law, the Iowa Attorney General’s Office proposed increased regulations last year. The bill passed the Legislature and was signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds in April 2018.
The law, Iowa Code 546.B, prohibits anyone from receiving compensation for advising or assisting someone with veterans’ benefits or referring a person to an accredited veteran service representative. It also requires organizers of events or presentations on veterans benefits to disclose that the event is not affiliated with U.S. or Iowa departments of veterans affairs.
Consumer advice: Applying for veterans benefits is free
Accredited veteran service representatives and veteran service organizations are trained to help veterans, as well as their families and advocates, understand and apply for any VA benefits they may be entitled to including compensation, education, vocational rehabilitation and employment, home loans, life insurance, pension, health care, and burial benefits. Additionally, they can help gather needed evidence for a VA claim and submit it.
Applying for veterans’ benefits is free, and neither veterans nor their families should pay for forms. The VA prohibits accredited advisers from charging fees to complete and submit VA paperwork.
VA-accredited claims agents and attorneys may charge a fee for their services, but only after the VA has issued a decision on a claim, a notice of disagreement has been filed, and the attorney or agent has filed a power of attorney and fee agreement with the VA.
The VA maintains a list of VA-recognized organizations and VA-accredited people authorized to assist in the preparation, presentation and prosecution of VA benefit claims at www.va.gov/ogc/accreditation.asp