Clippings: The issue of junk mail is no joke

Every other Monday, I carry a couple of clear, 30-pound trash bags full of recycling down to the Buttolph Drive curb.
Nothing unusual about that, of course, except that a lot of it consists of mail addressed to my dad, and he died in May.
So far, the nice folks running the team of horses who haul away our trash and recycling haven’t suggested we take our business back to Casella because of all the extra weight.
With any luck they won’t — since October I have so far contacted 231 charities, magazines, think tanks, scam artists, lobbying organizations and politicians (plenty of overlap among those final four categories) that are still trying to separate my late father from his money.
Maybe all those email and phone requests will stem that flow of junk mail. It has made some difference — on some days I can carry my dad’s mail, along with the occasional flier or magazine addressed to my wife or me, under one arm.
This is not all bad news. I am proud that my father, a family physician, was a generous man. He lived below his means, buying modest cars (his last was a used Ford Focus, which replaced a 13-year-old Mercury Cougar) and not just wearing but wearing out his clothes (no one who knew him will argue that point) while freely giving money to many deserving causes.
His favorites were environmental nonprofits (League of Conservation Voters, Friends of the Earth), social justice organizations (Amnesty International, the Southern Poverty Law Center), veterans’ causes (Disabled American Veterans, Veterans’ Hospice), animal protection agencies (ASPCA, World Wildlife Fund), Quaker organizations, and, appropriately, those groups fighting disease and working for women’s health (Doctors Without Borders, Planned Parenthood).
But something that others with elderly relatives should be aware of is that charities, even some reputable ones, sell each other their mailing and email lists in order to generate extra revenue. Meanwhile, other companies collect data on potential donors and sell those addresses and email lists to nonprofits, or even run their campaigns for them. Those heartbreaking letters in the appeals for cash? Someone was paid $2,000 to write each one, according to the Baltimore Sun.
Make a couple donations, and suddenly your mail increases dramatically. Complicating the problem for those with elderly relatives is the fact that seniors are as a group the wealthiest Americans, and thus are the prime targets for mass-mail marketers. And they can be vulnerable: Many live alone and look forward to getting the mail (or talking with telemarketers, a topic for another day).
I am sure one reason my dad gave to so many different charities rather than targeting his giving was simply to receive more mail. Mail provided him a source of activity and excitement, and supporting a wide range of causes with checks ranging from $25 to $100 no doubt gave him senses of purpose and self-worth.
But he also struggled to tell the difference between the worthy and not so worthy causes. Most of us can go on the Internet and discover whether a charity is on the up-and-up, whether it spends too much on its executives or too little on its causes. But my dad, like many seniors, refused to use computers.
Amid the wonderful causes he supported, there were some real scams: The U.S. Deputy Sheriff’s Association, flagged by Consumer Reports as a rip-off; the Southwest Indian Children’s Fund, which is run by sleazy televangelist Don Stewart, and if you read the fine print does not promise to use the donations for the stated cause; Paralyzed Veterans of America, which Charity Navigator gives zero stars; and the Jerusalem Prayer Team, operated by Christian Zionist crackpot Mike Evans, who wants to build a huge Christian church in Jerusalem as a way to create peace there.
And then there are the true bottom-feeders. I don’t mean the obvious ones, like bogus sweepstakes offers and phony psychics, but the ones that scare seniors into thinking their Social Security and Medicare benefits will be lost forever if they don’t immediately put checks in the mail to support the groups’ lobbying efforts.
Please, folks, if you see your elderly relatives get anything from the Federation of Responsible Citizens, National Center for Public Policy Research, National Senior Citizens Committee, Alliance for Retired Americans, American Service Council, Volunteers of America, National Seniors Council, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, People for the American Way, Liberty Guard, U.S. English, Seniors League, Seniors Group for Social Security, or Americans for Responsible Solutions, gently confiscate the envelopes and have a kind, but firm, discussion.
Those groups’ goal is simple: To separate your loved ones from their cash by instilling fear. Their mailings often look like inter-office memos or official government business. The organizations’ actual names are buried in fine print, contributions are typically not tax-deductible, and it is usually impossible to find an email address or phone number to ask anyone to stop mailing. Because it’s almost impossible to stop these mailings once they have an address, it is a must to have those talks.
And in a larger sense, to deal with this issue and protect your elderly relatives, please engage them: help them budget, identify worthy charities and target their giving.
And spend some time with them; don’t let them feel alone, and maybe they won’t be so vulnerable to slick marketing.
It would be a New Year’s Resolution worth making and sticking with.

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