Survival Story: Former Business Owner Overcomes Devastating Setbacks 

Published in Senior Digest, April 2016

If you are in pursuit of the American Dream, you probably weren’t given a roadmap that would guarantee a successful journey. Ask the average man or woman on the street today what immediate thoughts come to mind about owning your own business, and you’ll probably hear ‘being your own boss’, and ‘working your own hours’ that top the list of perceptions. But when opening your own business becomes the alternative to unemployment in your later years, as Donald, Russell, Jr. found out, it may not be what you expected or even planned. Like millions of middle-aged workers in the early 1990s, a severe economic downturn forced this Central Falls resident to make choices that ultimately would financially hit his pocketbook as he approached retirement.

Donald Russell had worked his way up from stock boy to manager at F.W. Woolworth Co., one of the areas original five-and-dime stores. During his 33 year career with this large big-box retail company, what was at the time the fourth largest retailer in the world operating over 5,000 stores, he eventually managed seven of the retail company’s stores, one located in Providence (at Westminster and Dorrance Streets), and the others in Massachusetts, Vermont and New York.

But everything changed in the late 1990’s, and this 117 year old company struggled to compete with the growing big discount stores. F.W. Woolworth filed for bankruptcy protection, and Russell, facing unemployment, had to quickly make major career decisions. He knew that, “at age 52, big box competitors don’t want you,” or if he was offered a position, the salary would be much lower than what he was used to. “I could not take less because I had to pay for my daughter’s college education,” he added.

Russell credits “courses he took at Boston College” for teaching him valuable lessons on how to open a small business, and with knowledge in hand, he was ready to take that leap of faith and open his own business. . Russell decided to cash out his $80,000 pension (less penalties) and combined with a loan from U.S. Small Business Administration, he would have enough capital to open a small retail business.

Getting into the Pet Business

Russell spent time researching a market niche, searching for one that would not put him in direct competition with the chain store. He discovered that the pet business was not really sought after by “big box retailers” and at that time “there were only 30,000 pet stores throughout the country. Today the number has decreased to 6,000.” Now . Russell found his niche, and in 1997 opened his business “Dr. Doolittle’s Pets & More”, a small pet store in an East Providence shopping plaza. Though situated between two large Petco stores – one in Rumford, RI and the other in North Attleboro, MA., Russell did not view the large chain stores as competition, for he knew his prices were better. In 1997 when Russell opened his store, small business accounted for about 85 percent of the nation’s economy, he states, noting that today this percentage has dropped to 70 percent.

Business was strong when Dr. Doolittle’s first opened and for over 13 years, Russell employed seven full and part time employees. However, by 2004 “the economy began to take a dive” and juggling the monthly rent, utilities and employee salaries became difficult when his cash flow slowed. Russell began to loose money.
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By 2006 his revenue had dropped 30 percent from the previous year, and neighboring big stores located in the plaza, like Ocean State Job Lot, began to close. In an effort to trim expenses, Russell was able to renegotiate his rent to a lower amount, however “losing the Stop & Shop Supermarket in the next plaza, which was a main draw to the area, “was ultimately the straw that broke the camel’s back”.

Taking from Peter to Pay Paul

Like thousands of small business owners in the Ocean State, Russell had to juggle each month to meet his expenses, which included his RI sales tax. Choosing to pay his monthly sales tax or paying his employees salary was not an easy choice to make, but he could not pay both. “I chose to pay my employees” first, with the plan to make up my [delinquent] sales tax later” he stated, noting however, that the “economy put the brakes to that”. “I could not even borrow a dime even with an excellent credit rating of 750,” added Russell. The poor economy had forced banks to cut off credit to small businesses – period.

In 2009, the Rhode Island Department of Taxation came knocking on his door, and the now 65-year-old pet store owner was forced to close his business because he was in arrears on his payment of sales taxes. While his business was his sole-source of income, the forced closing of the business put him in a ‘catch 22’ situation – blocking any attempt to rescue his business and pay off the remaining sales tax owed, which had now grown to thousands of dollars. Rather than padlock the door, the State did allow him access to the store to feed and maintain the animals until other arrangements were made.

Two weeks after his closing, Russell hammered out an agreeable payment plan with the State of RI for back taxes, but the economy never recovered, and by September, 2010 the doors closed for the final time. In a valiant effort, Russell paid off $18,500 of the $20,000 owed before he closed, but two years later to his surprise, he was blocked from registering his car because of the remaining taxes (and penalties) still owed. A dispute as to the amount of sales taxes (plus penalties and interest) paid ultimately ended with the state’s tax agency backing off and allowing him to register his vehicle.

Russell’s forced closing and ultimately his bankruptcy caught the eye of both statewide and national media. Two radio talk shows and television coverage brought the news of his closure to the public. Even the nation’s most popular Web site, “The Drudge Report,” posted articles. Amazingly, he says that over 100 pages of blog posting were also generated, too.

Making Ends Meet

Today, Russell, 72, is collecting Social Security supplemented by a part-time job delivering pizzas. He notes that beneficiaries will not receive cost of living this year. Like millions of Social Security beneficiaries, Russell feels the impact of inflation. “There is no extra money to buy groceries after paying my rent and utilities,” he says. Local food pantries provide additional food and the Pawtucket-based Blackstone Valley Community Action Program pays for some of his heating bills.

Reflecting on the lay off in his fifties that led to the opening of his small business and ultimately its closing as he reached his mid-sixties because of an ailing economy, Russell admits he did not have a strategy for getting through the tough times in his later years.

“I just coped,” says Russell. The former business owner has a strong opinion on opening a small business in Rhode Island. “Never,” he says. .

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Defend Yourself Against IRS Scammers

Published in Woonsocket Call on March 27, 2016

With federal regulators reporting a surge in tax-related fraud schemes, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and Rhode Island’s Division of Taxation are requiring new income tax filing requirements. The AARP Fraud Watch Network also gears up its efforts to protect consumers from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Imposter Scams.

According to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS), an aggressive and sophisticated phone scam targeting taxpayers, including recent immigrants, is making its rounds throughout the nation. Here’s the scam. A caller claims to be employed by the IRS, but they are not. To be seen as legitimate the con artist uses a fake names and even rattle off a bogus IRS identification badge numbers. The caller ID may even be altered to make it look like the call is coming straight from the IRS. .

Usually victims are told they owe taxes to the IRS and it must be quickly paid through a pre-loaded debit card or wire transfer or they will suffer the consequences. If the victim refuses to cooperate with the federal agency, then they are threatened by the con artist with arrest, deportation or suspension of a business or driver’s license. In many cases, the caller becomes hostile and insulting. Victims may also be told they have a refund due to try to trick them into sharing private financial information. If the phone isn’t answered, the scammers often leave an “urgent” callback request.

Knowledge is Power over Scammers

To combat this growing problem, the AARP Fraud Watch Network gears up its educational campaign, with digital advertising featuring a new tip sheet and online video to combat the “IRS Imposter Scam.”

Our goal is to warn consumers and empower them with the knowledge they need to keep their family members from falling victim to the IRS imposters,” said Nancy LeaMond, Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer, AARP. “Once they recognize certain red flags, they will be confident in resisting the aggressive bullying and scare tactics used by the scammers.”

The Fraud Watch Network campaign is advising consumers that legitimate IRS agents do not call and demand immediate payment. The IRS will not call about owed taxes without making contact by mail. The IRS will not require a taxpayer to use a specific payment method to make a tax payment, such as a prepaid debit card; or ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone. Finally, the IRS will not threaten to bring in local police or other law-enforcement groups to have you arrested for not paying.

For more information about the IRS scam and other tax-related frauds, visit http://www.aarp.org/FraudWatchNetwork. Consumers who think that they are being targeted by a scammer may call the FWN helpline at 877-908-3360 and speak with a trained counselor.

Federal and State Efforts to Protect Tax Payers

The IRS, announces that many newly implemented safeguards are now in place that consumers may not even be aware of, but are invaluable in fighting against the stolen identify refund fraud. Many of these changes are designed to better authenticate the tax payer’s identity and validate the tax-return at the time of filing.

The most visible change is new password protections for private-sector ax software accounts. Newly implemented standards require a minimum 8-digit password using a combination of letters, numbers and special characters. There also will be new security questions, new lock-out features and new ways to verify emails.

IRS’s password standards are intended to help protect taxpayers from identity thieves who take over their software accounts and file fraudulent tax returns using their names and Social Security numbers.

In a January 19, 2016 Advisory for Tax Professionals, Rhode Island’s Division of Taxation is putting in processing safeguards to protect an estimated 600,000 Ocean State taxpayers. Acting Tax Administrator Neena S. Savage announced that this tax season all taxpayers and preparers who file electronically will be asked to enter a driver’s license number as part of the tax preparation process.

“This is another way to verify your identity and the validity of your return before the processing of the return is completed,” says Savage, noting that the new filing requirement for is part of a coordinated and collaborative effort among the states, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, tax software providers, and others to help protect taxpayers from identity theft that may lead to tax refund fraud.

The requiring a taxpayers driver’s license is just “another layer of protection because identity thieves may already have your name and Social Security number, but perhaps not your driver’s license number,” says Savage, adding that this will assist states in matching driver’s license information with other identifying records to help confirm the filers identity.

“Tax software will prompt you for your driver’s license number. The information will be transmitted only in electronically filed returns; it will not appear on paper returns. It will also be safeguarded along with the rest of your tax return information,” adds Savage. The return will not be rejected if a taxpayer does not have a driver’s license number, or does have one
but does not provide it, she said.

New Phone app Fights IRS Phone Scam

With the April 18th Tax Day deadline fast approaching, Whitepages, a Seattle, Washington–based company releases an update for its ID app for Android that blocks suspected IRS scammers. The new Auto-Blocker automatically stops “IRS Imposter Calls” from reaching the user.

“Fraudulent phone scams are on the rise and, while some carriers and handset makers are starting to solve this problem, consumers need ways to educate and protect themselves,” said Jan Volzke, Vice President, Reputation Services at Whitepages. “While the IRS scam is far from the only unwanted call identified by our leading technology, it’s certainly top of mind this busy tax season. We want to help ease concern by making sure a large majority of those calls never reach their intended targets.”

Whitepages says, of the 300 million incoming calls that the company scans monthly in the U.S., more than 15 million are classified as “unwanted.” Last year, Whitepages identified the IRS scam as the number one type of scam call, with more than 1.2 million of these types of calls being made per month, accounting for at least 8 percent of all calls blocked by users. In addition, comparing February data from 2014 to 2016, IRS scam calls have grown exponentially, at nearly 2,500 percent over the past two years.

The new updated Whitepages ID app automatically blocks any incoming calls that have been identified by the company’s proprietary algorithms as being a known IRS scam number. The Alto-Blocker also includes the blocking of numbers that the IRS has officially flagged as suspicious.

While the Auto-Blocker stops IRS scam calls from ringing phones, users have the option to keep this auto feature on, or adjust the protection level based on type of call including: Scam or Fraud, Suspected Spam, Hidden Numbers, or International Numbers.

As scammers switch phone numbers in an effort to avoid detection, phone users will be alerted to popular or new area codes where scam calls are originating, so they can remain on the defense against numbers that may not yet have been blocked.

Finally, users can easily report IRS specific scam numbers back to Whitepages to be put on its block list.

Whitepage’s new app is free and available on GooglePlay.