South Carolina Legal Services > Articles by: South Carolina Legal Services

Beware of Social Security Fraud

Dollar Sign Drawing In A Notebook

Scams involving callers pretending to be from the Social Security Administration (SSA) asking for cash or gift card payments, have increased in the last year to become the most frequent type of fraud. To address this ongoing problem, the SSA has created an online form at https://oig.ssa.gov/ for people to report suspected fraud.

If you have received a call, email, text or in-person communication from someone pretending to be from the SSA, you can report the scam directly to the SSA by using the online form. The form will allow you to create a unique Personal Identification Number (PIN), so if someone contacts you about your report, you can verify that the call is legitimate. The SSA will use the data it receives from the reports to find the people responsible for the scams and reduce this type of fraud and the number of victims.

SSA employees do occasionally contact people by telephone. This contact is usually when the person has ongoing claims or other business with the agency. However, an SSA employee will never threaten you with arrest or other legal action if you are unable to pay a fine or debt.  Any request for money from the SSA will come in the mail. The letter will have specific details of how to make the payment and explain any appeal rights you have if you disagree with the amount owed to the SSA. Similarly, the SSA will normally mail a letter if there are any problems with your Social Security number or record.

As a reminder, the SSA employees will not:

• Tell you that your Social Security number has been suspended.

• Contact you to demand an immediate payment.

• Require a specific means of debt repayment, like a prepaid debit card, a retail gift card, or cash.

• Demand that you pay a Social Security debt without the ability to appeal the amount you owe.

• Promise a Social Security benefit approval, or increase, in exchange for information or money.

If you receive a call promising or threatening any of the above actions, you should hang up and report the call to the SSA at https://oig.ssa.gov. If you receive a letter stating that you owe money to the SSA and you do not agree or want to know more about your rights, South Carolina Legal Services may be able to help. To see if you qualify for our free services, call us at 1-888-346-5592 or apply online at https://www.lawhelp.org/sc/online-intake.

Tenants’ Rights to Heat and Hot Water

Young boy sitting in a chair.

During the winter months, lack of heat or hot water can become life-threatening conditions. This can be an especially big problem if you are disabled or have small children.  Repairs to heating and air or water heating appliances may be expensive, and landlords do not always fix them right away.  The South Carolina Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (Act) gives special protections to tenants when heat or hot water is not being provided in their units.

The Act requires landlords to provide heat and hot water.  Landlords are also required to maintain heating systems and hot water tanks.  Landlords cannot avoid these requirements through the lease.  If the landlord does not provide these services, you can sue but must first deliver a written notice to the landlord.  If the problem is not resolved as soon as possible, you can sue the landlord in the magistrate or circuit court and ask that the judge order the landlord to fix the problem and pay money damages.  In most cases, a landlord has fourteen (14) days to repair a problem, but if the problem affects health or safety, the landlord must make the repair as soon as possible.  If the landlord does not repair heat or hot water, you can terminate the lease but must first give the landlord a written notice that the lease will terminate in fourteen (14) days unless the problem is fixed before then.

Additionally, if the landlord does not provide heat or hot water, you have the right to obtain heat or hot water by some other means, such as a space heater or fire wood. You can subtract the cost from the rent and sue the landlord for money damages and attorneys’ fees. 

Once you discover a problem with heat or a water heater, you should act as soon as possible.  First, send a letter to the landlord with the specific details of the problem and what you want him to do.  If you want to terminate your lease because of this problem, say that in the letter. Remember, if the landlord fixes the problem within 14 days, you will not be allowed to end your lease.  Take pictures of any visible problems in the heating unit or water heater.  If not having the heat is life threatening, you can ask the magistrate judge for an emergency order to order the landlord to fix the problem. 

If the landlord does not fix the problem, you may sue.  You can sue in the magistrate court or the county court of common pleas in the county where you live.  If you file your case in the magistrate court, you can get a trial quickly, but remember, you cannot ask for more than $7,500.00 in damages. You or the landlord can ask for a jury trial.  Some counties require that you and the landlord try mediation before scheduling a jury trial. If you are having a problem with heat, air or hot water in your unit, South Carolina Legal Services may be able to help. To see if you qualify for our free services, call us at 1-888-346-5592 or apply online at https://www.lawhelp.org/sc/online-intake.

Every Child Deserves A Family

Father & Daughter Hugging

NOTE: All the names in this article have been changed to protect their identities.

In a modern world that is focused on negativity and dividing people based on their appearance or beliefs, we often forget about the simple traits that make us all human. No matter how big our differences may be, we all crave the human connection and the love of a family. Unfortunately, some children do not get to experience this love because they do not have a family. President Trump recently proclaimed the month of November as National Adoption Month – a time in which we can all raise awareness about the value of giving someone a family.

In 2019, South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS) has helped with 105 adoption cases. Our staff and your support have helped at least 105 children find a home, family and lots of love.

Rose is one of those children. George Burrell had been the only father figure in Rose’s life. Although not related by blood, Rose had lived with George since the time she was born. When she turned 8, Rose was in danger of losing him. Rose’s mother had her when she was 16 – unable and unfit to raise the baby. The biological father was and remains unknown. Debby, Rose’s maternal grandmother, was granted legal custody of the baby. She and George began raising Rose together.

A few years later, George and Debby split up, but Rose stayed to live with George – her “grandpa”. Initially, she visited with Debby a couple nights a week, but eventually the visits were barely once a week. George continued to raise Rose, brought her to doctor appointments, enrolled her in school and attended all her school events. He was the only significant person in her life who supported her and spent time with her.

Over time, Debby’s behavior became erratic, oftentimes, in Rose’s presence. On a number of occasions, Debby tried to snatch the child from George. Rose was suffering from several mental disorders and the doctors agreed that her condition was stable only when she was with George. Nevertheless, Debby had a legal document showing that she had custody and there was no telling what she would do. George could have tried asking the court to change custody, but that would not eliminate all risk and uncertainty. The only solution was adoption – a permanent legal protection for the home that George had built for Rose.

This case is proof that it does not matter how complicated or unusual an adoption may seem on the surface. Every child deserves a “real” parent who will provide them with love, support, and stability. If you have a child in your life that you want to adopt, SCLS may be able to help. To see if you qualify for our free services, call us at 1-888-346-5592 or apply online at https://www.lawhelp.org/sc/online-intake.   

Senior Holiday Scams

It is November and the holiday season has begun! While this season generally brings food, family and fun, it can also expose some of the more vulnerable members of our communities to a heightened risk of scams and fraud. Senior citizens and those who care for them need to be especially vigilant against these tricks. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a great article that highlights some of the more common scams and steps you can take to protect yourself and your loved ones.


Scams that target older people occur every day, but you can count on scammers to ramp up their efforts to prey on people’s generosity during the holiday season. These grinches, armed with their dirty tricks, may even tell elaborate stories to pull at your heartstrings as they slip their sticky fingers into your wallet.

During the holidays, the common scam known as the imposter or “grandparent scam” might be decorated with a special plea, a story of a relative in trouble who desperately needs money to fix a car or get out of jail and home for the holidays.

The ruse known as the IRS scam takes on a vicious new twist with a grinch on the phone threatening an elder with being arrested and spending the holidays in jail for unpaid taxes or a fake debt. And then there is the predictable increase in false or imposter charities, which sound identical to the real ones. The pitch is wrapped in sympathy inducing requests for year-end, tax-deductible holiday donations. These grinches stand ready to take your credit card or check routing information and charge you for bogus Nutcracker ballet tickets, or a holiday charity fundraising event.

These scammers may even scour the internet and social media sites looking for a special connection to your life, such as a family member or community connection, to get you to trust them so you’ll be willing to part with your hard-earned money. Some will go to great lengths to sound like they know you, or worse, your elderly parents.

Here are a few tips:

  • Before offering your help to someone who claims to be a grandchild (or other relative/friend), be sure to telephone your family to verify that the emergency or urgent request is genuine.
    • Beware of a caller who insists on secrecy. Never allow anyone to discourage you from seeking information, verification, support and counsel from family members, friends or trusted advisers prior to making any financial transaction.
  • Take the following precautions to make sure your charitable donations benefit the people and organizations you want to help. If a caller claims to be from an established organization such as a hospital, charity, or law enforcement agency, look up the number of the organization independently and verify the claim before sending money.
    • Ask for detailed information about the charity, including name, address, and telephone number.
    • Then, call the charity directly. Ask if the organization is aware of the solicitation and has authorized the use of its name. The organization’s development staff should be able to help you.
  • If you have received a letter from the IRS stating that you owe taxes, call the IRS directly at 1-800-829-1040 for information.
    • The IRS will neither call to demand immediate payment, nor call without first mailing a bill. And, the IRS does not require you to use a specific payment method such as a prepaid debit card nor will they threaten you with arrest for not paying.

Share this information with your friends, parents and others in your community. For more information on identifying and preventing fraud and scams, check out Money Smart for Older Adults: Prevent Elder Financial Exploitation  guide for consumers. In addition, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Office for Older Americans has produced materials that include Managing Someone Else’s Money Guides for financial caregivers. To find these materials and to learn more, go to consumerfinance.gov/older-americans.


If you have a been a victim of a consumer scam, South Carolina Legal Services may be able to help. To see if you are eligible, call our Intake Office at 888-346-5592 or apply online at https://www.lawhelp.org/sc/online-intake.

Helping Veterans

Veterans Day is a day we celebrate those who have served in the Armed Forces. However, separation from military service can be an exciting and confusing time as veterans readjust to civilian life. At South Carolina Legal Services, we work to meet the civil legal needs of those who have served our country. In addition to receiving direct referrals from SC Serves, many of our offices regularly participate in Stand Down events for veterans across the state to provide information about the services we provide.

We provide representation to income eligible veterans in every area of law where we usually represent clients. We also have numerous attorneys throughout the state who are certified to represent veterans in Veteran’s Administration (VA) benefits cases, although most of our referrals are not directly related to military service or VA benefits such as pensions or VA disability. We most often receive referrals to represent veterans in family law (mostly custody and visitation cases).  We also receive referrals for representation in eviction cases, used car cases, and consumer law cases.

In pension and VA disability cases, there are some things a veteran can do at separation to help prevent delays in the future. Primarily, it is a good practice to obtain and keep his or her DD214 (Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty). Also, veterans should obtain their OMPF (Official Military Personnel File) upon separation. It can take a while to locate these records once the veteran has left active duty service, which can cause delays in applying for benefits.

Veterans or their next of kin (defined as the un-remarried widow or widower, child, parent, or sibling of the deceased veteran) can request copies of the veteran’s military records through the National Archives’ National Personnel Record Center (NPRC). The NPRC normally responds to requests in ten working days or less. However, some requests may take much longer. Records are usually free for veterans, next-of-kin and authorized representatives.

In some circumstances, a service-related health problem may come to light shortly after discharge. If a veteran is having health problems after separation, he or she should go to a veteran clinic soon after separation. It is generally easier to argue that health problems have a service connection if the veteran has medical records showing that the issues existed within a year of separation. Seeking medical care shortly after discharge is important especially if the injury is not listed in the OMPF.

It is also important to be mindful of appeal deadlines and seek legal representation (if it is desired) as soon as a denial of any benefits is received to avoid missing important deadlines and to allow the representative time to fully evaluate the case.

Race Equity Project & Community Lawyering

At the beginning of 2019 South Carolina Legal Services created the Cultural Humility Unit.  The Cultural Humility Unit is a team of South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS) staff dedicated to aiding and empowering communities impacted by systemic inequity.  Work of this unit includes but is not limited to: Race equity issues; access and equity for individuals with disabilities; the needs of individuals with limited English proficiency (those with visual/hearing impairments, individuals who cannot read and/or write, and individuals who primarily speak or write a language other than English); and the needs of LGBTQ+ community members.

In the Spring of 2019 four members of SCLS, Tiffney Love, Susan Ingles, Shinead James, and Whitney Stout, were accepted in the Shriver Center on Poverty Law’s Racial Justice Institute.  This competitive program included weekly and biweekly training sessions from May 2019 through October 2019.  The program also included a week of in-person training in Chicago in June during which the team was able to network with other Legal Aid and Legal Services organizations around the country also prioritizing equity work and obtain feedback on the Race Equity Project they would ultimately implement at SCLS.  

The proposed Race Equity Project includes implicit bias training for our staff, training on community lawyering, and the implementation of de-biasing interventions.  The project will also mobilize the Cultural Humility Unit team members to assist in examining the internal policies, procedures, and practices within the law firm to ensure the community is served and the firm aligned with the values of cultural humility and equity.

With the support of the SCLS Executive Director and Board the first step of the race equity project began with the Cultural Humility Unit receiving training on implicit bias and the steps of implementing a de-biasing protocol.  At the October 2019 Annual SCLS Statewide Training, the Unit made a presentation to all staff on cognitive bias, how patterns of behavior create structures and systems, how these systems create inequity, and how the decisions we each make in our roles at SCLS could perpetuate cycles of bias.

Cultural Humility is the process of identifying how everyone’s unique cultural identity affects the needs and challenges faced by each individual.  Going forward the Cultural Humility Unit will continue with the Race Equity Project and will also adapt the strategies learned at the Racial Justice Institute to expand our trainings to include topics related to other communities and groups experiencing systemic inequities.  Following the Statewide Conference, the Cultural Humility Unit met for an introductory training to Community Lawyering.  The Unit will use Community Lawyering tools to form relationships with community groups and leaders to ensure that we are informed of the needs and goals of our communities and are offering trainings to prepare our staff to assist with empowering our clients and communities.  Some initial community outreach plans include expanding our attendance at LGBTQ+ Pride and Latinx Community Events.

If you are interested in SCLS attending your event or providing information or training to your community, please contact Whitney Stout at whitneystout@sclegal.org.    

No Benefits And No Improvements

NOTE: All the names in this article have been changed to protect their identities.

Rick Barnett had been getting social security disability benefits since 2004. The Social Security Administration (SSA) initially determined that Rick’s disability stemmed from stomach issues, back injuries and mental limitations. At the end of 2013, SSA determined that Rick was no longer disabled, and his benefits were to be terminated. Rick did not know how to explain this. He did not feel any improvement in his health. His only explanation was that he refused to have surgery on his back.  He was 52 years old with a limited education and continued to be unable to work. Rick appealed the termination of his benefits.

During the next three years, as the appeal process was ongoing, Rick made countless doctor visits, suffered several emergency hospitalizations, and was prescribed more medication than he could recount. In 2017, Rick was referred to South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS) by an administrative law judge (ALJ) who was presiding over his social security disability hearing.

Once again, the decision was that Rick had medical improvement, was no longer disabled and not eligible for social security benefits. Because we disagreed with the decision, we appealed to the Appeals Council. Unfortunately, this process can take up to 25 months and Rick’s benefits would now stop.  At this point, the only thing Rick could do was wait for a decision.  Fortunately for him, a decision came quickly. The Appeals Council reversed the judge’s decision and found that Rick remained totally disabled.

Rick’s troubles were not over yet, however. After his social security benefits were reinstated, SSA determined that he was “living in a household of another” and reduced his benefits by one-third. This was despite the fact that there was no change in Rick’s living arrangements since he was originally determined to be disabled. Rick had continued to live with his girlfriend, and to pay for his own living expenses. He had also accrued debt from the years when he was not receiving any income.

Thanks to zealous representation of Rick’s SCLS attorney, Rick’s unfavorable decision was subsequently overturned, and his full benefit amount was reinstated. Furthermore, Rick received over fifteen thousand dollars in back pay for the years when his benefits had been terminated.

Help for Victims of Domestic Violence

A few weeks ago, a man was charged with a double homicide in Sumter, South Carolina.  The man was accused of killing a woman he was involved in a romantic relationship with.  He was also accused of killing her 5-year old daughter.  He may have killed another woman in a different state about one month prior to the double homicide in Sumter.  In a different case, a woman in Richland County was charged with murder.  She had allegedly stabbed her boyfriend. Police had responded to 52 calls for service from the couple’s residence in 2019.  In court, the accused claimed that she had been the victim of domestic violence at her boyfriend’s hands.  His family claimed that the accused woman was the violent one and had previously cut off the deceased man’s ear.

In thinking about these horrific tragedies, I ponder if these people would be alive today if something had been done differently?  Did law enforcement do everything they could have done to protect them?  Should the law enforcement have arrested someone during those 52 times that they were called to that home?  If the abuser had been arrested and convicted, would these victims still be alive today? If our laws were stricter, would that 5-year-old little girl have started kindergarten this year? Of course, no one will ever know the answer to these questions. 

Currently, police officers have discretion whether to arrest or not arrest if they have probable cause to believe that a person is committing or has freshly committed an act of domestic violence.  Would a change in the law requiring officers to arrest when there is probable cause help us lower our domestic violence related homicides?  Or, would it just lead to less victims calling the police?  Again, I don’t know the answer. 

One thing I do know is that there are free resources available to victims of domestic violence who are ready to get out of the abusive relationship.  Lighthouse for Life provides “freedom bags” full of essentials when a victim leaves an abusive relationship.  There are domestic violence shelters like Sister Care and the YWCA that offer emergency housing and counseling.  South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS) offers free legal assistance to victims of domestic violence.  SCLS can help victims get an Order of Protection, custody of their children, or even a divorce from the abuser.  These are just a few of the many resources available.  You can apply for our help by calling 1-888-346-5592 or online at www.sclegal.org. Our eligibility for free legal help depends on your income and your legal problem.

In 2018, 41 people lost their lives in South Carolina as a result of domestic violence. That is 41 too many.  October is domestic violence awareness month.  If you or someone you know needs assistance in getting out of an abusive relationship, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

October is National Bullying Prevention Month

Bullying is any act intended or that should be reasonably intended to hurt or harm another person that is usually repeated or occurs more than once. Everyone (students, employees, and volunteers) who witnesses bullying or harassment in public schools or even outside of schools when it causes a major disruption in school has a duty to report it to the principal or other appropriate persons.  Unfortunately, society seems to reserve the term bullying for behavior associated with youth.  However, bullying can be found in relationships of all ages and in all social groups.  Adults can be victims of bullying and harassment in many settings: online, at home, at school and at work.  We can identify some forms of bullying as domestic violence, child abuse, sexual harassment and racial discrimination.  

People react differently in an undesirable situation when they perceive that nothing can be changed.  However, there will be a reaction. For victims of bullying, we do not know if the reaction will be internal, external, or a combination of both.  According to a 2017 report by the Joint Citizens and Legislative Committee on Children, in South Carolina, suicide was the leading cause of death for children ages 10 to 14 and the second leading cause of death for children ages 15 to 17.  The Committee on Children also reported that the number of high school students that attempted suicide in South Carolina was significantly higher than the national percentage.  Bullying is not the cause of all suicides, but it can cause or increase mental health disorders.  Also, it is common for bullying or harassment to be mentioned as a trigger for extreme responses such as behavioral issues in school or even school shootings.

Perhaps, if we want to prevent bullying, we should remember, bullying is not something that only happens to children in public schools.  It is a form of abuse similar to domestic violence, child abuse, sexual harassment, racial discrimination and others.  We observe bullying in many forms and cultures, and we become desensitized to it.  It is difficult to prevent or stop, but we should not stop trying. If you need free legal assistance to combat aggression or bullying in any form, apply at South Carolina Legal Services by calling 1-888-346-5592 or online at www.sclegal.org. Our eligibility for free legal help depends on your income and your legal problem.

LGBTQ+ Issues and Resources in South Carolina

The history of the LGBTQ+ community is one that is long and rocky, filled with the struggles of people who even today are having to fight for their rights. LGBTQ+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and other sexual identities. Of course, Supreme Court cases such as Obergefell v. Hodges make a huge impact and spur greatly the progress of the community. However, the Supreme Court cannot handle all of the everyday legal issues that members of the community face. Fortunately, at the local levels, legal aid organizations like South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS) are there to handle specifics that one may not even consider at first: name and gender changes on birth certificates, marriage licenses, adoption and divorce.

Just last year, SCLS helped a transgender man get a name and gender change on his birth certificate. He faced a roadblock in his home state which did not recognize gender changes for those in the transgender community. The court there refused his request to change his name and gender on his birth certificate. SCLS took the case and was able to get a judge in South Carolina to order both changes. This client’s experience in his home state shows that the law and society still have a long way to go toward true equality for members of the LBGTQ+ community. At the same time, the successful completion of the case here shows that small, but life changing victories are happening every day.

Local programs also exist to empower people and give them a place in their city or town. South Carolina’s own Upstate Pride was founded in 2008 as a grassroots effort to spread awareness and educate members of the upstate. Their first march had around 500 people attend, and that number has only grown in the years since. Upstate Pride has since garnered support from many local and national resources, businesses, and even some churches.

Other resources include organizations focused on creating positive environments, such as BJUnity, which provides a safe harbor for those in the LGBTQ+ community that have been negatively affected by fundamentalist Christianity. There are medical resources such as AID Upstate that provide support for those living with HIV/AIDS, as well as prevention services. Mobile groups such as PrideLink travel throughout the Upstate, providing assistance with medical and social issues through their mobile community center. Businesses such as Cafe and Then Some in Greenville host frequent drag brunches where tips are donated to LGBTQ+ organizations like Upstate Pride itself.

There are almost constant events being offered throughout the upstate. In fact, Upstate Pride week is October 25th to November 3rd, ending with a drag brunch from South Carolina’s own Delighted Tobehere at Cafe and Then Some in Greenville. SCLS will be attending the Upstate Pride March and Festival at Barnet Park in downtown Spartanburg on Saturday, November 2. We will be providing information and brochures about our services, so come by if you have any legal needs!

SCLS is a non-profit law firm that provides free legal help to low-income South Carolinians. To apply for our services, please call at 1-888-346-5592 or apply online at www.sclegal.org.