Content starts here
AARP AARP States Pennsylvania Finances 50+

On Guard: Fierce Watchdog is No ‘Average Jane Doe’

Mary Bach_2.jpg
As she travels the state to share consumer protection tips, Mary Bach, 78, of Murrysville sometimes waves a red flag to warn of danger: a request for a Social Security number, for example, or a contractor who wants money up front. She pulled out the flag at a June event in Pittsburgh.
Photo by Nancy Andrews

Mary Bach loves to shop. But she has an eagle eye when it comes to being overcharged at the checkout. She’ll never let it slide if she’s charged full price for a bag of on-sale Snickers or taxed on a roll of toilet paper.

Many weeks, the volunteer for AARP Pennsylvania drives hundreds of miles along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, trekking from one speaking engagement to the next, telling people how to detect scanning errors and get their money back. She details the “amusing and confusing” rules on Pennsylvania’s state sales tax: mouthwash and facial tissue, for example, are taxed—but toothpaste and toilet paper aren’t.

She stands before crowds with a red flag in her hand as a prop, explaining the latest scams perpetrated by phone, email or text. As she waves the flag, she details the danger signs: a request to give your Social Security number over the phone or a contractor who wants money up-front.

“I may be known as the red flag lady to some people,” she says.

Such is the life of a dedicated AARP volunteer. It’s not glamorous, but it is rewarding, and in AARP Pennsylvania circles, the 78-year-old is known as a force of consumer activism and a motivator for the 15 other volunteers she leads as chair of the Consumer Issues Task Force.

“Her ability to put money back in people’s pockets is just incredible,” says David Kalinoski, an associate state director of AARP Pennsylvania. “She’s been a vigilant and ardent fighter for individuals, preventing them from being ripped off.”

Or as Bach puts it: “It’s your money we’re talking about. I don’t care if it’s a couple of pennies or several dollars.”

A ‘charming pit bull’

Volunteers on the task force are sometimes wary about speaking in front of a group. Kalinoski says Bach helps build their confidence by sharing her best methods for connecting with the audience, many of whom approach her after talks to confide their own experiences with criminals who have stolen money from them.

Bach, a former high school social studies teacher who has been an AARP volunteer for about 25 years, treats her volunteer work as a full-time job. (Her husband of 57 years, Len, is also an AARP volunteer.) Pre-COVID-19, she logged up to 125 speeches — and 15,000 miles — a year.

Her mileage is ticking back up this year as in-person events resume. During a recent week, she traveled 632 miles. That included a jaunt from her western Pennsylvania hometown of Murrysville to Harrisburg, where she was on the air live for her monthly “Fraud Watch” segment on ABC27’s Good Day PA!, talking about home improvement scams. Then she gave speeches to groups near Allentown and in Chambersburg on fraud and shrinkflation.

Independent of her work with AARP, Bach has sued big retailers in small claims court and won $100 judgments for checkout-scanning and sales-tax errors. She recounts court battles like war stories in her talks. And although Bach doesn’t expect members of her audience to file lawsuits themselves, she urges them to always check sales receipts and to politely ask for money back if they catch an error.

For those who worry about holding up the line or fear confrontation over demanding their 10 cents back, Bach tells them, “Sometimes you have to have a thick skin.” If you try to confront one of these situations and feel uncomfortable, she adds, “Just let me be your little angel and put me on your shoulder.”

Bach says her polite manner and unassuming appearance are secret weapons. People may think she’s an “average Jane Doe housewife,” she says, but looks are deceiving: “I can be a real charming pit bull.”

Cristina Rouvalis is a writer in Pittsburgh.

More on Consumer Protection and Saving Money

5 Smart Ways to Save Money Today

About AARP Pennsylvania
Contact information and more from your state office. Learn what we are doing to champion social change and help you live your best life.