With a list of prospects in one hand and the telephone in the other, Forrest Koenig began another cold-calling session at his First Union Securities office in San Francisco.
But this cold-calling experience would be different from all others.
It's had a huge impact on Koenig's life - as well as the life of 87-year-old Mary Sweetman.
Sweetman was on Koenig's list of prospects, and when she told the 30-year-old rep she was interested in meeting because she was expecting $826,000 in a lump sum, well, you can imagine Koenig's reaction. After picking up his jaw from the ground, he couldn't make the appointment fast enough.
But when Koenig sat down with Sweetman, he was astonished to learn that his prospect was waiting for the $826,000 from ... Ed McMahon.
"I was shocked," Koenig says. "She showed me a letter with McMahon's picture on it that announced she had `definitely won $826,000.' It was a disgrace."
Koenig didn't want Sweetman to get alarmed, "so I stayed calm," he says. "She didn't really know who I was, and I wanted to establish her trust."
Koenig soon discovered that Sweetman had spent about one-third of her savings in a six-month span on Publishers Clearing House materials and other mail-order contests. Virtually every day, Sweetman was ordering merchandise from contest promoters, incorrectly believing she had to buy something to increase her chances of winning, Koenig says.
"I was sickened by the thought of this nice, innocent women being ripped off by those deceptive companies," he says.
Koenig was already an advocate for the elderly, serving on the board of the San Francisco Bay Area Ministry to Nursing Homes, an organization helping older people combat their loneliness. He says, "It was fate that I met Mrs. Sweetman."
Obviously, it was difficult for Koenig to inform Sweetman that she wasn't going to be receiving $826,000 and that she should stop participating in the contests. It was equally difficult for Koenig to discover that Sweetman never had any visitors. Not one. Other than a grandnephew residing more than an hour away, Sweetman doesn't have any living family.
Koenig has turned out to be like family to Sweetman, who was married twice but never had children. "We've developed sort of a grandmother-grandson relationship," says Koenig, who not only visits Sweetman at least once a week, but does chores around her house, takes her to art museums (he purchased annual memberships), and accompanies her to the supermarket.
"We've grown very fond of each other," says Koenig, whose arrival at Sweetman's home is met with anticipation. "She'll answer the door excitedly and say, `I put this dress on just for you,' or `I'm wearing this jewelry just for you.' It's great.
"But as much as I've done for Mrs. Sweetman, she's done a lot for me, too," he continues. "As a hobby, she was a genealogist when she was younger, and she helped me track down my family tree on my mother's side all the way back to the 1730s."
Sweetman had stopped doing genealogy because she was so wrapped up in mail-order contests. Koenig put a stop to the contests, ensuring that she will still have enough money to go to a nice private assisted-living center if needed.
"But if she continued spending like she was, she wouldn't have been able to," Koenig says. "I just couldn't see that happen to Mrs. Sweetman."
Helping older folks combat loneliness and live in a clean, pleasant environment for their remaining years is important to Forrest Koenig. That's why he's on the board of the San Francisco Bay Area Ministry to Nursing Homes.
"What many people don't realize is that loneliness is one of the crucial factors in the mental, physical and psychological health of older human beings," says the San Francisco-based First Union Securities rep.
"Being lonely gives people anxiety - and 60% of all nursing home residents in the United States - rich, poor, black, white - do not receive any visitors. Not a single one. It's horrendous."
Koenig refused to stand by and allow the situation to worsen. "Our organization sponsors art programs and gives out flowers to residents of nursing homes," he says. "We also developed an e-mail program in which volunteers read e-mails [to nursing-home residents] and type responses to those messages."
The volunteers are disadvantaged kids from tough neighborhoods who do not have an adult in their lives to look up to. The program connects these kids with the elderly, who crave human contact.
"The results have been amazing," Koenig says. "It's not only tremendous to see the turnaround in the kids who don't have an adult connection, but it's equally wonderful to see the elderly happy to have visitors.
"What you see is a lot of life, a lot of love and a lot of caring."
Publishers Clearing House reached an $18 million settlement in August with 24 states that had accused it of consumer fraud. The states will use the money to reimburse customers who spent at least $2,500 with the company between 1997 and 1999.
But the state of Wisconsin refused to accept a settlement, saying it was not enough. Attorney General James Doyle decided to take the company to court - the first state to ever do so. The state's civil lawsuit charges the company with making false and misleading statements targeting the elderly.
"I'm glad Wisconsin is taking them to court," says Forrest Koenig, a First Union Securities broker in San Francisco. "I've seen the effect these mail-order houses have had on the elderly. The intent of these companies is to make money - not award money - and the way they go about it is totally misleading. I'm a well-educated person and even I have trouble understanding [contest] letters. Imagine how difficult it is for older people to read them."