I love my job. Every day I come into work and I get to play a small role in helping my clients start their families by bringing a baby into their lives. The part of my job that I don’t care for is when I am retained to initiate litigation against an agency that has turned my clients dreams of having a baby into a nightmare by stealing their life savings. We have documented numerous scandals over the past few years in which agencies have absconded with client funds and/or shuttered their doors without any notice and, in the process, abandoned their Intended Parents, Surrogates and Egg Donors. These recent episodes have included agencies such as Angels In Waiting Surrogacy Center, Bala Surrogacy, Mid-West Egg Donation, SurroGenesis, B Coming and Surrogate Parenting Center of Texas.
Sadly, there are no signs of these scandals ending anytime soon. I do not know about you, but it seems almost once a day I receive an email from a different widow of a benevolent but dead President of some obscure country in Africa, decrying the mistreatment of her family and soliciting my assistance by allowing her to wire 350 million dollars into my bank account so she can escape the country with her infant children. Would you ever fall for a scam like that? Well, that is essentially what some of these agencies are doing — the only difference is that the Intended Parents are being asked to wire up to $125,000 of their life savings, purportedly to fund a surrogacy and/or egg donor arrangement. Yet Intended Parents, desperate to start their families, take understandable but nevertheless reckless risks by sending these funds without ever even having verified that the agency exists outside of some digital presence on the internet.
Would you wire funds to a surrogate agency with a glossy website, representing years of experience yet they list no physical address for their business? Would you send those funds to an agency if you knew this was their published place of business:
UPS Store or Surrogacy Agency?
This is an example of an agency that operates out of a UPS storefront. Of course, if you were to review their website, you would have no way to know that it was not their actual physical address. Does this mean that the agency is fraudulent? Of course not. But it should at least put you on inquiry notice and compel you to demand that the agency provide you with a legitimate and verifiable address so that you can do your own due diligence before sending them a large sum of money. By the way, a tool like Google Earth makes it very easy to determine the legitimacy of the address.
We previously blogged on some ways you can protect yourself before retaining one of these agencies. The Internet Health Resources site has some excellent online articles on how you can avoid being victimized as well. Among some of the basic precautions you can take, include:
Do not rely upon a website’s representations or testimonials. Contact independent professionals such as physicians, attorneys and mental health professionals to obtain an objective opinion about the program you are considering.
Agencies have preyed upon vulnerable Intended Parents using glossy marketing material; impressive websites;and bogus statistics, qualifications and testimonials. So while the internet has enabled unscrupulous agencies to exploit unsuspecting individuals, it also can be used to great advantage. Use the internet to conduct your own research into any agency you are considering. A quick Google Earth search would have revealed that most of the SurroGenesis offices did not exist or were not what they were purported to be. A Google search on the owner of Bala Surrogacy would have revealed a prior affiliation with SurroGenesis which might be an influencing factor in your decision making process.
Be skeptical. Agencies are busineses and while their motivations may be largely altruistic, they nevertheless exist to make a profit. Do not assume that any representation that is being made is truthful. Trust but verify. Similarly, if you conduct any internet research, be sure that the source of the information is unbiased. There are many commercial sites, aligned with agencies, who are masquerading as neutral and independent resources of information. Moreover, it is not uncommon to see message boards full of wonderful testimonials without any ability to determine the objectivity of the commenter.
Insist that the agency disclose any all real or potential conflicts of interest. Demand that they disclose any ownership or pecuniary interest they may have in any outside entity or professional that they refer you to.
Review their retention documents carefully. Some agencies include hidden charges or make all or a portion of their fee non-refundable — even if they provide no services. You have a right to negotiate changes to your agency contract and if the agency is over-reaching and unwilling to address your concerns, you may need to find a new agency.
Demand that the agency, in writing, explain how they handle trust or escrow accounts. If they refer you to an outside escrow company, be sure to inquire as to any ownership or financial interest the agency has in that escrow company. Inquire as to whether the escrow company is bonded, licensed and/or insured. Make certain that the escrow company transmits regular statements reflecting the status of your account. If your surrogate agency serves as the trust administrator, demand that they provide you with bank statements or a written verification from a CPA who regularly audits their accounts. Please do not rely solely upon an internally generated ledger of your account as it is far too easy for an agency to manipulate a QuickBooks or PeachTree accounting ledger to reflect funds that no longer exist.
Make sure you are represented by independent counsel. Do not allow the agency to unilaterally appoint an attorney on your behalf or that of your surrogate. Select a qualified, experienced and independent attorney to represent your interests, oversee the process and advocate on your behalf.
Educate yourself on the professional and ethical guidelines that exist to protect you. Resources such as the American Society of Reproductive Medicine and the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology are invaluable resources. Do not take an agency’s representations that they adhere to these organizations guidelines at face value. Confirm with your doctor, attorney or mental health professional that all protocols are being adhered to.
Visit the agency’s office. Too many shady agencies operate behind fictitious addresses or Post Office boxes. If the agency is unwilling to disclose their office address and/or allow you to visit, you have just been presented with a major red flag.
The aforementioned list is not meant to be exhaustive. Rather, it should be used solely as a starting point. I have re-posted it so as to address some of the concerns I hear from worried Intended Parents and Surrogates who are anxious given the recent spate of scandals. Also, please do not automatically assume the worst if you hear a rumor about your agency. Often times when fraudulent conduct is being alleged, there is more smoke than fire. Sometimes it is misinformation being used to gain a competitive advantage by a competing agency or a disgruntled client upset about a legitimate dispute. However, if you believe that something inappropriate is taking place with your agency, contact your independent attorney immediately. Demand an immediate accounting of your trust funds. If the funds are being held by the agency, insist that they be immediately transferred to a licensed and bonded escrow company. If necessary, contact local law enforcement.
Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.