Fright Mail Targets Seniors
In bold, black type, the envelope warns, “I have some bad news …”
Another screams in red letters, “Red alarm — read immediately.”
Yet another proclaims, “Don’t worry — I’m doing everything I can to fix this.”
No matter the message on the outside, the content of the letters inside generally has the same goal: separating senior citizens from their cash. Many urge them to "act fast" to support efforts claiming to protect Medicare and Social Security benefits.
Topics which are, as the senders of these letters well know, dear to seniors’ hearts.
These kinds of tactics, what some dub “fright mail,” have been going on for years. Senior citizens are particularly prey in part because of the way they grew up, says Sally Hurme, an elder law attorney from Chanute, Kan., who is AARP’s project adviser for health education in Washington, D.C.
“If it looks like the information is coming from Social Security or Medicare or someone who is in authority, a government official or spokesperson for something or another, we want to trust them,” she says. “We think this is the person we should go to, and we’re less likely to doubt the validity of the information they provided because it’s coming from a purported trusted source.”
Pepper Jaso, an investigator for the Economic Crime Unit of the Johnson County District Attorney’s office, agrees, saying that many seniors will not go to a computer to research a group that sent them unsolicited mail asking for funds.
“They come from a generation that doesn’t understand that people would pretend to be the government or use scare tactics to get money to lobby their group,” she says. “So anything that says ‘Social Security Benefit Alert’ — absolutely they’re going to read it and open it and say, ‘Oh my God.’”
Indeed, some of the mailers look official, as though coming from the government with Washington, D.C., addresses. They have gravitas-sounding but vague generic names. Many call themselves by several names and resonate with anti-government or partisan fervor. Their mailings address seniors directly by name or with a gratuitous salutation (“my dearest friend”) and ask for small donations on up to “other” amounts the recipient cares to send. Many arrive accompanied by “petitions” or “surveys.” For emphasis, words in capitalized letters or bold type are common.
The mailings generally come from tax-exempt lobbying groups, and experts say nearly all are legal. Although tax exempt, some say in small letters that because they are lobby groups, donations are not tax-deductible.
“I desperately need to hear back from you,” pleads one letter.
Another claims, “And now we’re fighting for a Constitutional Amendment to protect Social Security and our benefits for all time. But this time we’re in the fight of our lives and we need just about everyone I can reach to join in.”
Hurme said the pitches target seniors’ vulnerabilities by raising false concerns about their health care or retirement.
“Seniors are the ones with money, and the people who are trying to do the thievery know that,” she says. “They do shotgun approaches to try to find the few out of the millions that they approach who might become vulnerable or susceptible or interested in whatever the pitch might be.”
In Kansas, the charity groups using direct mail to solicit funds must register with Kansas Charity Check through the Kansas Secretary of State’s office (kscharitycheck.org). From the myriad mailings gathered in recent months by an Overland Park senior who did not wish to be interviewed, all but one had registered. Two had expired registrations that had not been renewed at press time. A group called the National Tax Limitation Committee had not registered at press time and did not return a phone call seeking an explanation.
“They have to be registered in Kansas if they’re soliciting Kansas consumers,” says Jaso, explaining that each letter must be reviewed individually if alarm bells sound as to their legality. “There’s no way that we could sort of lump it in or make one swooping statement that all these solicitations are illegal. On a case-by-case basis, if consumers are concerned that they have something that might be illegal, they should forward that to our office to take a look at it.”
Upon viewing several of the letters in question, she acknowledged that they could be considered fright mail, but had a caveat.
“People have the right to get this mail,” Jaso says. “People have the right to get mail that tells them that there are lobbying groups out there that are concerned about how the government spends our money. Do I think the tactic is appropriate? No. Do I think the way they try to get the message across (is appropriate)? No.”
She has no doubt that these groups get legal advice.
“They’re getting away with this because some attorney had told them what line they can and cannot cross,” she says.
Rather than making specific threats that Social Security and Medicare benefits would be cut off unless a donation is made, the agencies’ letters request funds to support efforts to reach out to the government to help save Social Security or Medicare.
“The other issue we look at is, do they falsely use some government agency’s logo?” Jaso says. “Were they using Social Security’s logo or were they using the presidential seal — any of those types of things to make it look like the government officially sent it? You certainly cannot do that.”
Many solicitations are legitimate, but some turn out to be less so. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt says his office performs a large number of enforcement actions every year involving enterprises targeting senior citizens. If they’re questionable, he wants to hear about them.
“Unfortunately, seniors are an often-targeted group because many scammers believe that many have means, having worked a lifetime to save, and because the scammers believe that they may be particularly vulnerable to frauds and rip-offs,” he says.
“We see a lot of them coming in by telephone, we see a lot of them coming in by email, but U.S. mail is still a tried-and-true method by which scam artists get into a person’s living room and try to win their confidence.”
He says a common factor in the mailings in the sense of urgency.
“It’s never true,” Schmidt says. “We advise folks to not lose a moment’s concern over it. Tear it up or shred it.
“Usually the reason scam artists can keep doing this is because they haven’t gotten caught. That’s usually the reason. I’m not passing judgment on any specific mailing, but as a general matter, we encourage folks to report these types of solicitations to our office or to the DA’s office. If we can find them, we’re delighted to take enforcement actions. The problem often is these folks are like cockroaches. They scurry into the shadows, and they’re very difficult to find.”
STOPPING THE FLOOD
Debra Losensky is a general analyst with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service’s Kansas City field office who handles investigative issues. She knows firsthand how scary the scare mail can be. She lives with her mother, who receives such solicitations.
“She’ll say, ‘I got another one,’” Losensky says. “She’ll just hand it to me and I’ll say, ‘Mom, just ignore these. Rip them up.’ If she was living by herself, I could see where she would think this was something she needed to do.”
Experts say many seniors get on these mailing lists because at one point they donated to one of the solicitors. When it comes to replying to these mailings, they had one word of advice: beware. Once you give, you’re likely to be deluged with a mountain of mail you don’t want.
“Think it through,” says Hurme of the AARP. “The government doesn’t call to verify your Social Security number, and the government isn’t sending out political-sounding mailings seeking financial contributions.”
Losensky’s mother sent in a contribution.
“It was something like $12 or $15,” Losensky says. “Ever since then she keeps getting all these coming in to her. I know she gets one just about every month, if not more frequently. Her name hasn’t gotten out to all those mailing lists yet.”
Hurme says that the names of those who send in money to unsolicited mailers are placed on what is called the “mooch” list.
“Once you give to one of these organizations, once you give to one of these fake charities, a ‘gold star’ is put next to your name and the lists are traded, bought and sold,” she says. “Even if you think, ‘Oh, I’m going to get rid of them and send them $25,’ you are now targeted as a giver and you can’t guarantee you will start turning off the flood.”
Consumers can register to be taken off the lists with the Direct Marketers Association, a national trade association whose members market by mail. But that only works up to a point, Attorney General Schmidt says.
“The challenge is that what typically happens is if you sign up for that, the companies that are legitimate will adhere to it; they’ll follow your request,” he says. But, he adds, the “crooks out there will continue to mail to you, so it’s not going to stop the worst of the worst, but it will reduce the volume.”
TWO CHARITIES RESPOND
Amy M. Ridenour, director of the National Retirement Security Task Force, a project of The National Center for Public Policy Research, sent a letter to the senior who did not want to be named declaring, “It is absolutely critical that National Retirement Security Task Force receives immediate financial aid within the next four days. We have just 96 hours. 96 hours to thwart President Obama and the liberals’ effort to bankrupt Social Security by filling the trust fund with useless ‘IOU’s.’” It was one of many the senior received from the group.
After a call from 435 Magazine, David A. Ridenour, president of the group and Amy’s husband, replied by email that his wife’s letter does not classify as a scare tactic.
“I certainly wouldn’t characterize this as a ‘tactic,’” he writes. “The prospect of getting cancer is very frightening, too, but the American Cancer Society is not engaging in scare tactics by mentioning that they're conducting research to cure it. You can’t fix a problem without mentioning it.
“That said, there are groups that use actual ‘scare tactics’ — hyping risks and dangers beyond that justified by the facts — as a means of generating greater revenue.
“My sense is that such tactics are not effective. In my view, they are more apt to generate smaller, ‘impulse-buy’ donations and less likely to create donor loyalty.
“The best fundraising is that which establishes long-term relationships. You do that by demonstrating the value and effectiveness of your work.”
Excessive or duplicate mail is not in his group’s best interest, he writes, apologizing that the senior in question was inundated with mailings from this group and offering tips on how to stop them.
“Only the U.S. Postal Service, printers and mail shops benefit from this as they get paid the same amount per piece regardless of the outcome,” he says.
A review of his group on Kansas Charity Check revealed that its registration expired June 30, 2013.
When asked about that, he replied in an email: “We have a law firm that handles The National Center for Public Policy Research's registrations, and the firm is normally very good about keeping us up-to-date. If our registration is expired, they'll take the appropriate steps to get us up-to-date.”
In checking her databases, Losensky discovered that the Ridenhours’ group has garnered 20 complaints nationwide dating back to 1994, with the most recent in November 2012. Six of the 20 stated they had sent money, but Losensky noted that most likely other individuals who complained also sent in money but didn’t indicate that in their complaints.
As another example, Losensky found out that a group called the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare has had complaints against it dating back to 2004, with the most current one filed in October 2013.
“In all, I found 41 complaints and only four of those individuals had actually sent in money,” she wrote in an email. “The complaints were filed from customers throughout the U.S. All of the addresses associated with the complaints are in Washington, D.C., — mainly with P.O. Boxes.”
Pamela Causey, director of communications for the organization, made no apologies for the group’s mailings, saying that people can simply ask to be taken off its mailing lists and they immediately will be. She readily acknowledges that the group gets complaints from seniors.
“We’re like so many other nonprofits who rent lists from other sort of like-minded organizations because we’re always looking for seniors who might be interested in the work that we do advocating on behalf of Social Security and Medicare,” Causey says. “So if anyone calls us and says, ‘Please take me off the list,’ they’re gone. We include that in every mailing we send out.”
People can sign up to become a member of the organization. If they want to drop out, their $12 yearly membership fee will be refunded, Causey says.
“We are very consumer-friendly because we know that, particularly working with seniors, there can be some concerns,” Causey says. “There are a lot of less-than-honorable organizations out there who are looking for money and various means, and it gets a little confusing and seniors may just get a little concerned and so they decide, ‘I just don’t want to give to anybody,’ or ‘I’m just going to give to the charities in my local town that I know,” or whatever. Whatever their reasons, we don’t question that.
“There are a lot of other organizations out there that are doing mailings that are employing a lot of scare tactics; we just give (recipients) the facts. We say, ‘Look, this is what’s happening up in the halls of Congress right now … this is what we’re trying to stop. If you want to join us or if you want to donate to this campaign, please do.’”
Rather than employing scare tactics, she says her group employs urgent-message strategies to get the seniors to open the mail. Some groups, she adds, are copying her organization’s methods.
“We’ve noticed they’re starting to use larger display envelopes and they’re putting more urgent messages on the outside because this is just a means of getting people to pay attention and open it up,” Causey says. “When they get in (our mail), they’ll read a very fact-filled, policy-based description of what’s happening on Capitol Hill right now and why they should be concerned or why they should send a letter to their member of Congress. We do a lot of letter-writing campaigns to Congress.
“Generally in any given mailing that we do, we get anywhere from 75 to 100-some thousand people who will sign a letter to their members of Congress … or they’ll sign a petition. We bring those to the Hill. This is part of our advocacy and lobbying effort.
“Is it a scare tactic or is it something to draw attention? We like to think of it as something to draw attention. The scary stuff we’re not inventing. We’re just reporting. The scary stuff is what’s happening up on the Hill.”
AN AD MAN'S TAKE
Nick Barkman, business development manager for Gragg Advertising in Kansas City, said scare-tactic direct mail gives advertising — especially direct-response advertising — a terrible name because it preys on vulnerable seniors worried about their income.
“Unfortunately there’s always going to be a group of people that are going to take advantage of any given opportunity,” he says. “Scare mail tactics are nothing new, they’ve been going on for years. There’s been plenty of for-profit companies that have gotten in trouble for scare mail tactics. Political action committees sometimes will employ use of these. It kind of runs the gamut. Personally I find it disgusting.
“The name of the game, obviously, in any kind of direct mail response advertising or direct mail is to get your piece opened,” Barkman says. “But the intent should not be ever to mislead somebody.”
Gragg Advertising works with regulated industries like mortgage companies and educational entities, he says, and anything put in a message, especially direct-response mail, is run through a compliance check and an internal ethics check.
Scare tactics are not a motivator, Barkman says.
“If someone is motivated to do something by fear, they are not thinking clearly, and they’ll likely end up not using that product or service at the end,” he says. “We would not accept business from somebody who wanted to do things like that.”