Predatory junk mail can cost families thousands

For most people, junk mail is just a nuisance, but for others, it can become a serious problem.

When the asking and the giving gets out of hand it can be financially devastating for families.

Senior citizens are especially at risk, and tend to be the biggest targets for junk-mailers.

Marian Davis in Greenville, for example, is in her 80’s and has always enjoyed walking to her mailbox and finding it packed with letters.

She has a hunch why she gets so many.

“Cause they know I’m an easy touch. If you’re a nice person and everything then you know I just love everybody.” Davis said about the junk-mailers.

She gave so much to these junk-mailers that she had to ask her son to help her balance her checkbook.

“She was writing a lot of checks for not much, but $10 here and $20 there and it would total up to several hundred dollars, sometimes even $700 a month, so that was the tipoff.” said Davis’ son John.

He says when he totaled it up, her realized his mother gave nearly $8,000 in one year.

Davis isn’t the only junk mail victim, though.

Virginia Bryant in Greenville says her sister-in-law was unaware of where the money was going because she had dementia and gave more than $24,000.

A relative of Jennifer Bell in California had to take out a reverse mortgage to fuel her desire to give.

“She gave away the entire value of her home which was about 100,000” said Bell.

Once the victims became overwhelmed by the junk mail, they tried to stop it, but their families say their requests were consistently ignored.

The main regulator is a non-profit that gets its funding from the industry itself, the Direct Marketing Association.

It operates a “do not mail” program called DMA Choice. But that only works if you have no purchase or donation history with a company.

And once you donate to one group, you can expect mail from other groups.

“It was clear that somehow her inclination to contribute to such groups was being passed around to other similar groups and targeting her.” John said about his mom.

Right now, companies can share and even sell your name as soon as you donate, unless you specifically opt out.

We brought this concern to Senny Boone, who is on the General Council of the Direct Marketing Association.

“What you have to do is reverse engineer that. So the donor can go back to the organization and say please don’t share my name.”

Boone then added “We believe that in terms of the opt-out process to start with that actually is a better solution. If it’s opt-in only for the sharing of information, that could be problematic to organizations that are looking for supporters.”

Taking a closer look at Davis’s mail shows she was giving to charities with very poor ratings.  Take Paralyzed Veterans of America, for instance.  Charity Navigator gives it a zero rating because it only gives 32% of donations to programs, and has no privacy policy.  PVA told 7 News “We continue to innovate in our fundraising and strive to put as much money into our programs and services as possible. But charity watchdog groups that ignore achievement when rating nonprofits simply miss the point of what it means to champion a cause.”

And then there’s the shear volume of mailings.  Families say they often don’t stop.

We talked to U.S. Senator Tim Scott about the charities and political organizations that don’t stop mailing families, even after they request it, and asked if they could be held more accountable.

“Absolutely, to the extent that it’s possible. If you find someone that is an aggressive abuser of the law we should take a look at their 501c3 status. If they are in fact a 501c3 charity who continues to abuse seniors we should find a way to hopefully revoke their status.” Scott said.

You can report a company to the Direct Marketing Association‘s website, but it’s not easy to figure out.

Scroll to the bottom of the home page, click Accountability, then click Learn More. Next, click Guidelines for Ethical Business Practices, scroll down half-way, click Report a Complaint, scroll to the bottom, and click File a General Ethics Complaint.

DMA told 7 News, this process is something they will look to make easier.

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