Etta Calhoun of Spring, Texas is a lovely, gracious, soft-spoken woman who as a devout Christian believes in the word of God and its power. She has lived her life by Biblical principles; they give her comfort and hope. One day she came up with an idea: Why not share God’s words with more people in a way she thought had never been done before: Bible verses on bed sheets?
“God gave me this idea for this design,” says the former patient educator at a local medical center. “If someone is sick, the word of God will be on the bedding. When they go to bed at night the first thing they’ll see is his Word. Because I was going to have the comforter, the sheets and the pillow slips. Then they would get in the bed and wrap up in the Word of God.”
Her initial enthusiasm hit the pause button, though. How would she go about getting a patent? How do inventors get their ideas to someone who’ll build a prototype, let alone to the market to sell them?
But then a path was cleared for her. There was a man on TV, a man of faith, talking to her about InventHelp. Here was a Pennsylvania-based company operating for 30 years that had helped thousands of inventors turn their ideas into profitable reality.
There, standing before her, was George Foreman, the two-time heavyweight champion and Olympic gold medalist who’d gone on to George Foreman’s Grill renown and was now reaching out to help others just as he’d been helped to fame and fortune.
And above all, George Foreman was an ordained Christian minister. Who better to believe in? “I really trusted him. I really believed that it was on the up-and-up because his face was on it.”
A friend of hers had just invested in InventHelp, also drawn in by the George Foreman spots. So in 2012 Calhoun called InventHelp and was assured she had a winning idea in “The Word of God Bedding.” She really liked the person she talked with; she was so enthusiastic. “And she was a Christian too,” she says. They did tweak her idea a bit – suggesting it be coupled with an audio recorder playing Bible verses attached to the pillowcase – and she thought that just made it better. After all they were the professionals.
Calhoun didn’t see any red flags and over the next six or seven months she had meeting after meeting in various InventHelp offices in Pearland and The Woodlands, paying the company a $200 downpayment to get the $780 “Basic Information Package Report” started. “They said there was no other idea like it. There were blankets and shawls but no bedding so we were OK to go.”
She hesitated, not wanting to rush in, but then she remembered George Foreman. Her family thought it was a good idea. When she couldn’t possibly cover the $9,950 they wanted to proceed for the next step, InventHelp helpfully directed her to Universal Payment Corporation, which they said was an independent loan company – although how independent it actually is part of what plaintiffs hope to ascertain in a lawsuit.
Yes, no happy ending here. There is a lawsuit and Etta Calhoun’s name is on it, the lead name, in fact, on a class action lawsuit filed in Pennsylvania. There is another class action lawsuit in New York state. The defendants in both cases are InventHelp and associated companies in which Calhoun and others allege that InventHelp’s operation is a scam, that InventHelp and its associated companies prey upon low income people, often minorities, and either do nothing or deliver subpar work.
They allege violation of the American Inventors Protection Act of 1999, violation of the states’ unfair trade practices and the Consumer Protection Act, as well as fraud, negligent misrepresentation and breach of contract. And that actually even the few people who bring their inventions to market with the help of InventHelp and its parent company Invention Submission Corporation (which offices at the same Ninth Street address in Pittsburgh as InventHelp) often end up spending more with these companies than they will ever make on their inventions. Robert J. Susa, the president of these companies, is also a named defendant.
In Calhoun’s case, InventHelp had to change up her idea because, according to plaintiffs’ attorney Julie Pechersky Plitt of the New York City-based Oxman Law Group, you can’t patent words. And actually there are already products on the market similar to what Calhoun was suggesting.
InventHelp denies all allegations and has tried unsuccessfully to have both lawsuits thrown out of court, insisting in one case that the plaintiffs were clients of another company, not InventHelp. George Foreman is not named as a defendant, although attorney Plitt says he may be added later.
We were unable to reach Foreman who has a 45-acre property in Huffman, in northeast Harris County and a ranch in Marshall, so it’s unclear how much of the actual inner workings of InventHelp he knows about as a paid spokesman for the business.
We did talk with his son George Foreman IV who said InventHelp was a great company and expressed surprise at our call. He said they’d never heard of any lawsuit against InventHelp. He said he’d see if his father would talk to us, but that never happened and instead in a subsequent call, Foreman IV politely referred us back to InventHelp.
The lawsuits each ask for a jury trial, $36 million in relief and punitive damages and another $72 million in compensatory damages. While Plitt wouldn’t say how many clients she has signed up so far, she did say: “We expect hundreds, probably thousands.”
Asked if she believed more than a few clients – who paid anywhere from $700 to $30,000 for InventHelp’s assistance – bought into InventHelp because of Foreman’s representation, Plitt says “More than several. I would say the vast majority of them.
“They look at him as a successful person. Our investigation has uncovered that InventHelp targets a lot of its advertising to communities with a high population of African-Americans. That is one of the reasons why they used George Foreman because he appeals to that community and he’s viewed as a person who came up with an idea and made it with his idea,” Plitt says. “These people are under the impression in fact, that he used InventHelp to make it big with his idea. (Many think he invented the George Foreman grill, she says. He did not. But he made millions of dollars promoting it.)
No matter that George Foreman has a good reputation, Plitt insists: “The company is totally a scam and he’s the front man for the scam. This is a real genuine fraud where people who are well meaning and good people are being completely defrauded.”
Despite Plitt’s vehement characterization of InventHelp as a bad actor, a look at InventHelp’s website would lead anyone to believe that a lot of very happy people have used its services. Plitt claims they have evidence that most of the positive testimonials are fake or that they are written by customers who’ve just been accepted by InventHelp and that two years down the road when little to nothing has happened, it is a different story.
Still, InventHelp – with its ubiquitous logo and commercials showing a cave man chiseling a stone wheel – has been in business 34 years and is the organizer of INPEX (Invention and New Product Exposition) said to be the largest invention trade show in the United States. The Better Business Bureau gives InventHelp an A+ rating. Universal Payment Corporation has the same highest rating. (Although a 2015 investigation by CNN Money
showed “more than 100 businesses that had ratings of A- or higher despite having serious actions taken against them by government regulators in the past year.”) According to Plitt, InventHelp has been fined by the Federal Trade Commission before, but says it falls upon the attorneys general of the individual states to enforce the laws governing businesses like this and often, no matter how strong the laws, that doesn’t happen.
Elsewhere on the internet there are more than a few complaints about InventHelp all pretty much saying the same thing – they took a lot of my money and didn’t do anything for me.
Getting comment from InventHelp or its attorneys was an endeavor that took several days. While David J. Garraux said to be the attorney of record never got back to us, after several tries on our part, Lark Blasi, compliance manager with InventHelp did respond. She reached us by email, saying that the original New York lawsuit was filed in the name of two people who never did business with InventHelp and that the company that did work with these clients – Invents Company – is in no way related to InventHelp.
“We are aware that a law firm in New York State has filed a lawsuit against InventHelp. The lawsuit was first filed several months ago on behalf of two individuals with whom InventHelp has never had any contract or business relationship. Instead, the two individuals claim to have entered into contracts with a competitor of InventHelp’s known as Invents Company.
“Although this case is styled as a class action, the 300 paragraph Amended Complaint [filed in June 2018] is premised on the empty conspiracy theory that InventHelp and its competitor, Invents Company, are, somehow, one and the same. The fact that Plaintiffs purport to demand tens of millions of dollars from InventHelp does nothing to lend more credence to their case,” Blasi wrote.
Asked about this, Plitt responded by email that “Etta Calhoun & Sherry Porter, Named Plaintiffs in the Pittsburgh & NY lawsuits, respectively, have paid and have contracts with InventHelp, NOT Invents.”
Plitt also emailed that “We have uncovered substantial evidence that these 2 companies (InventHelp & Invents) are linked. We are more than happy to produce the results of our investigations (which are substantial) if and when InventHelp requests such information in the context of discovery. For now, what I can tell you is that I have many many many clients who called the 1-800 InventHelp #, and were subsequently contacted by Invents Company in response to those calls.”
According to the lawsuit: “Defendants’ multi-tiered conspiracy preys upon aspiring inventors’ high hopes and dreams. It is cleverly constructed to avoid liability and monetary judgment by employing an intricate web of seemingly independent entities – invention promotion companies, private money lenders, patent attorneys, licensing and distribution companies, and manufacturing companies – that act in concert to defraud Class Plaintiffs.”
And elsewhere: "Whilst InventHelp, Universal Payment Corporation, Intromark Inc., and the other named Defendants hold themselves out to be independent companies, they are one and the same, and are parts of an integrated fraudulent enterprise. The schemes, trickery, and fraud set forth herein are universal and indistinguishable, notwithstanding the titles of the entities with which Class Plaintiffs believe they are dealing.”
Blasi concedes that an amended complaint did add an individual “who – unlike the original Plaintiffs – claims to have actually signed a contract for services with InventHelp.” She also said that InventHelp stands by its efforts on behalf of all its clients.
She goes on to say: “While we are sure you understand that we cannot provide you with a paragraph-by-paragraph assessment of the pending Pennsylvania litigation, the complaint is stuffed with inaccuracies and will be dealt with by our counsel in due course. Plaintiffs have been working overtime to recruit new litigants and to create a case where none exists; we’ll respond appropriately and will work through the judicial process to expose these copycat allegations for what they are; empty and frivolous.”
Plitt for her part says “We’ve had three hearings in New York in which InventHelp tried unsuccessfully to have the case thrown out.” At Inventhelp’s request the case has been moved to federal court which they have a right to do, she says.
That federal judge, Plitt says, has already said he’s not dismissing the case and granted Plitt’s request to add more claims against InventHelp and the other defendants.
Speaking with Julie Zanotti, a hairdresser living in Putnam Valley New York, northeast of New York City, it's hard to imagine her ever being taken advantage of when she talks in her exuberant, full-speed-ahead style.
Zanotti came up with the idea of inventing a tool that would make her job easier and easier for others: a hair comb that would have a built in pump chamber allowing gel to be distributed evenly through the teeth of the comb. She named it “The Distributor” or “Liqui Comb.”
She and Ronese Brooks (a Yonkers woman who came up with the idea for eyeglasses with detachable and adjustable arms – unfortunately not a new idea and similar products are already on the market) are the named plaintiffs in the New York case. Reached at home, Zanotti was more than willing to discuss her case and how it moved to the legal arena.
She too was attracted to the image of George Foreman on TV. “With this famous person on TV, it has to be legitimate.” She decided to give InventHelp a call, was redirected to Invents Company and made an appointment to come in to their Iselin, New Jersey office. When she explained her idea the reaction from the Invents representative she says was: “Oh my God, wow. This is amazing.” She was told it “presented an excellent opportunity for profit.”
According to the lawsuit, Invents representative, Pamela Mitchell, told Zanotti that Invents had contacts at several companies including the well-known brand ‘Paul Mitchell Hair Products’ who would be very interested in her idea.
Actually, however, as the lawsuit states, Zanotti’s idea was not novel or otherwise not available to the public. Several companies already manufacture and sell similar products, it states.
Invents charged Zanotti $700 to run “a product profile patent search” and set her up with a client portal to allow her to check in on the progress of her invention. “They were supposed to give me a commercial.” After a while she called the main office in Manhattan and asked the receptionist if she could see her commercial. “Oh, you can’t see that,” she says she was told. “That’s only shown to a certain marketing area somewhere in California.”
“So then I got to the point ‘Where’s my prototype?’ They were supposed to make me a prototype like it says right in the brochure.” She was told the company itself did not do that. They told her they would “partner” with her for $7,950. When she said she didn’t have that kind of money, they directed her to Innovations Credit Corporation, a private loan company that they told her “only lends money to inventors.” (It’s also a defendant in the lawsuit.)
Zanotti “expressed concern that she may not qualify for the loan and that she could not afford high loan payments,” the lawsuit says. The Invents person told her that there was no credit check and that everybody qualifies for their loans, according to the lawsuit. She was told in conversation that the loan would be interest-free, she says.
On May 5, 2014 she took out a loan that she paid off in two years. Contrary to the previous assurances, it had an interest rate of 18 percent. As she was finishing the payments she asked where her manufacturer was and was referred to Zambro Manufacturing. “They wanted $3,000 to start helping me find a company to manufacture my tool.” She charged the payment although the charge on her card came back “Global Express Manufacturing.” She says she threatened to sue when she realized Zambro wasn’t a manufacturing firm itself and they gave her $2,500 of her $3,000 back. She did get a virtual model of her tool, which she figures is worth $500.
Despite all this, she was still game to see her invention become reality. In May 2015, she was referred to and engaged a Florida attorney Ashkan Najafi so that she could get a patent for her invention. She signed on with him for $4,490 plus an additional $950-$1,500 per response for each time the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejected her patent.
The lawsuit says Najafi would have known that Zanotti’s invention was not suitable for a patent and that hundreds of Invents and/or Invent Help clients did not get patents and had complained that Invents and InventHelp were frauds. Najafi is also a named defendant in the suit.
By this time, she was out about $10,000 total. She went to small claims court in Manhattan (which she says has a limit of $5,000) and won a judgment for $5,000 in November 2016. But she could never get them to pay her the money despite repeated phone calls.
Completely randomly Julie Plitt happened to come into Zanotti’s salon to get her hair done. Plitt mentioned that she was a lawyer and Zanotti poured out her story. “How she first started describing the case to me was she said: ‘Have you ever heard of George Foreman, those George Foreman commercials?’ Plitt says. Plitt returned later and asked Zanotti to come to her law office, that her boss wanted to talk to her.
Zanotti still sees the ads all the time on local news and still doesn’t understand why Foreman represents InventHelp. “He’s famous. He’s somebody that people look up to. He’s a famous person so why would somebody in his situation represent an illegitimate company?
Zanotti says she left a message on George Foreman’s Facebook page asking him why. “He never responded. He’s likable; he’s personable. Somebody should ask him why he’s representing this company. I feel he’s partially responsible.
“I want to put these people out of business. I want them to stop doing what they’re doing.”
According to the class action lawsuits, the InventHelp operation goes like this: After the initial visit and encouragement by staffers, InventHelp moves into high-pressure tactics such as “today is the very last day of a special or promotion that will save consumers of hundred or thousands of dollars.” There reportedly is no such special deal.
They are told they must sign immediately before they leave the office, according to the lawsuit. Customers aren’t given time to actually review the lengthy complicated contracts.
“Class Plaintiffs then agree to pay the steep initial fees out of pocket (often selling personal property, remortgaging their homes or borrowing from family members) or to loan the money from Defendant Universal Payment Corporation. In the meantime, Defendant s make off with Class Plaintiffs' money and do little to nothing to fulfill their end of the bargain, stringing Class Plaintiff s along with false promises and boilerplate "analyses" in order to extract more money from them for additional services (which they do not and never intend to provide), and then disappearing and dodging calls as soon as Defendant s have all the money in hand,” the lawsuit charges.
Then later, “after months or years of silence, Defendants reappear to Class Plaintiffs, sometimes in the guise of distribution marketing or manufacturing companies, and other times as representatives of lnventHelp or Intromark Incorporated, Plaintiffs' "licensing agents," telling Class Plaintiffs that they've discovered Class Plaintiffs' inventions, that they have purchase orders, licensing agreements, and/or retail distributors at the ready, and that they just need an additional $5000-$10,000 in order to make those final arrangements. After scamming more money from Plaintiffs, they disappear without a trace.”
“Defendants actions are particularly egregious because many of their customers are of modest means,” the lawsuit says. According to the lawsuit, although the defendants say there is “no risk” if clients can no longer make payment, saying that “the contracts will simply expire with no further performance on either end.” Except that if that happens, the lawsuit says, “Defendants dog Class Plaintiffs, threaten to ‘destroy’ Plaintiff’s credit and threaten to put liens on their homes and other personal property.”
When Calhoun first started coming in to the InventHelp offices – Plitt says they have a habit of renting, not owning buildings and moving the employees around from one to another – she had to drive all the way from Spring north of Houston to Pearland south of Houston where she met with a Renee Hopes.
When she signed her initial contract with InventHelp one of the company’s disclosures stated, "The total number of customers who have contracted with InventHelp in the past 5 years is 8,095 ...The total number of clients known to have received more money than they paid InventHelp for submission services as a direct result of these services is 38."
However, the lawsuit points out, another "Affirmative Disclosure Statement" signed by Calhoun on that very same day, contradicts this, saying: "The total number of customers who have contracted with the invention developer since 1985 is 53,037. The total number of customers known to have received by virtue of this invention developer’s performance, an amount of money in excess of the amount paid by the customer to this invention developer is 0.”
Calhoun repeatedly declined to commit to the $9,950 contract and InventHelp kept calling her. Then she was called to The Woodlands office, somewhat closer to her home. There Calhoun asked a representative named “Heather” if she really thought she had a good idea and Heather assured her that if she was out shopping, she’d certainly buy this product.
But when she went back later, Heather was no longer there and it was back to Renee in Pearland. Then Renee was fired, she was told and suddenly her visits were back with the reappeared Heather in The Woodlands.
“Then Heather decided to quit to go to school to be a lawyer,” Calhoun says but she trusted her so much that she called her cell phone after she was gone to again ask if Heather really thought she had a good idea. Heather said she did.
This back and forth went on for six or seven months till Calhoun signed the contract and ended up putting $500 down which she got from her daughter. “It was either her income tax check or her 401K.” Calhoun’s family had bought into her dream and fully supported her.
InventHelp directed her to Universal Payment (its online presence shows it is a Pittsburgh company with only a P.O. Box for its address) where she took out the $9,950 loan. InventHelp then gave her a phone number and a reference number to see how her project was going. As part of the agreement, if her invention ever began making money, InventHelp would receive 20-30 percent of the profits, she says. Thomas Frost, the lawyer who drew up the patentability search and option – who she was told was independent – actually “receives all or a substantial percentage of his business from Defendants, and is not independent or objective,” the lawsuit states. He is a defendant as well.
In 2014, Calhoun received a DVD and the disappointment hit hard. “It wasn’t attractive. It was like they just threw something together,” she says now. She called InventHelp and was told her idea “was purposefully presented in this way because otherwise, ‘someone could steal your idea,’” the lawsuit states.
Shortly after that she went to dinner with a friend whose husband is a lawyer. Hearing her story and that she was paying $281 a month to repay the loan for the money it cost her at InventHelp he told her “Don’t pay out any more. Don’t waste your money,” she says. Universal was still calling for loan payments so she tried to send at least $20 a month to keep her credit rating from being destroyed.
What had been supposed to happen next was InventHelp would contact different companies and tell them about her invention idea. She didn’t think much of the companies they were selecting and wondered why they weren’t trying something like Christian bookstores. Her friend saw a story in a newspaper about attorney Julie Plitt and that’s when Calhoun contacted her.
Asked if InventHelp was prospering, Plitt said, “Absolutely it’s doing well. Ridiculously well. Think about it. Every single person they sign up gives them $10,000 minimum and they sign up thousands of people.”
Except, perhaps not as much as previously thought, or perhaps there's just new strategies going into effect. Julie Zanotti had sent another letter to Invents Company at its Manhattan address, trying to collect on the judgment she won. It came back to her, marked return to sender. It said the office was no longer there. "No one to sign." Last Thursday she called the one phone number she had for the company and asked the receptionist about how she could reach the Manhattan office. "She told me that the Manhattan office is no longer open."
Disguising her voice, she pretended to be a new potential customer interested in signing up with them and was told "Sorry I can't help you." They weren't taking on anyone new.
In a 2017 article in the Albany Student Press George Foreman was quoted as saying: “So many people were bugging me about their new inventions so I partnered up with invent help and help that company help clients develop their inventions make them pretty and present them to companies. I’m happy about that.”
Now, his son George IV, says his father got into his arrangement because he knew he could help people.
“Seeing George transition from a pro athlete to an entrepreneur was really inspirational to a lot of people because it showed them they can re-invent themselves. Whatever their career, if they have a dream and they pursue it and they do all the stuff that’s necessary to become successful then they can achieve.
And according to George IV (and even after we sent him copies of the two lawsuits), “At InventHelp we have seen countless cases of exactly that. People who had nothing but a dream but found a team and people who had the resources to help them be successful. And there are countless examples of those success stories.”
To date, Etta Calhoun can’t count herself among those happy throngs. The 64-year-old who easily looks a couple decades younger than her age, says her four grown children and her husband all support her. She retired to help look after a grandbaby; her husband is a retired limousine driver and the extra money from an invention wouldn’t be a bad addition to their lives.
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“But if I don’t get a dime out of it, I just want them stopped,” Calhoun says. “They tell you that you come in and you give them your idea. And they go with it from there and they’ll do all that work for you,” she says. “They would have it made and then you would give them 20 or 30 percent of everything but you wouldn’t have to do any of the work. “
“When I went in the first time, she had pictures of people with these designs. Some of them had been on infomercials. Which encourages you, you know.”
The last time she called in to check on her idea’s progress was around January of 2018. If anything had even remotely possibly been going to happen; the non-payment of her loan had canceled that out.
Etta Calhoun still believes in her design. Still believes it would help people. She still believes in God. She really doesn’t believe in InventHelp. And it’s safe to say, she doesn’t believe in George Foreman much anymore either.