Recycled Outrage

For reasons best unexplained, Pun Salad Manor receives the AARP Bulletin. This caught my eye on the cover of the April 2010 issue:

Woman Loses
Home Over $68
Dental Bill

Whoa, that is an outrage. I turned to page 6, but you can read the article on the web here.

Summary: Ms. Capri Ramos of Salt Lake City was billed $67.72 for a dentist visit over 15 years ago. Unpaid, the bill was turned over to a collection agency. A judge ordered Ms. Ramos's house sold to pay the debt; it went up for auction in 1996 and was sold to "Jarmaccc Properties" for $1550. (Ramos had purchased the house for $51K.) Two years after that, Ramos learned that the house's title belonged to Jarmaccc, and she's been trying to get it back.

OK, really? I googled "Capri Ramos", and one of the first hits was this ABC News story. Headline:

Woman Loses Home Over $68 Dental Bill

I. e., exactly the same headline used by the AARP Bulletin.

I'm not accusing anyone of plagiarism; the stories are different enough, although the AARP version seems to be a Cliff's-Notes version of the ABC one.

The date on the ABC story caught my eye: May 22, 2008, nearly two years ago. Hence the title of this post. If, for space-filling purposes, the AARP needs to exhume stories of that age, dust them off, and present them as fresh, there's a silver lining: these "outrages" must be pretty darn rare.

Once you look beyond the scare headline, the story gets a lot more complex.

First, Ms. Ramos is still living in the house the headlines claimed she "lost". And she's still making mortgage payments on it. Arguably, both headlines are misleading.

Beyond the headlines' accuracy, the stories are one-sided, relying heavily on Ms. Ramos's version of events. Even so, they still invite skepticism. Most of the important things happened, it seems, without Ms. Ramos being aware. The AARP story says she "never received a subsequent bill" from the dentist; she says "she was not notified" of the original legal proceeding; she learned of her title loss "on a fluke". The ABC story notes the same obliviousness toward her legal and financial situation, and (to ABC's credit) quotes a couple folks who express skepticism.

And once you get beyond the MSM accounts, the story starts to get even more complex. If you enjoy reading PDF legal opinions, here's one from the Utah Court of Appeals from a few months back; it granted Ms. Ramos a another opportunity to undo the original 1996 sale. The history the court recounts is messy, hardly the simple morality tale AARP wants to sell you.

But the bottom line is: pay your bills, pay attention. Getting your name in the AARP Bulletin as the victim of an "outrage" is not an adequate reward for irresponsibility.