By Meredith M. Griffith
“Dorothy’s” daughter grew concerned as she leafed through the pages of her mom’s bank account. She could see that money was being siphoned away by small donations to various organizations that sounded charitable, such as “Help Hospitalized Veterans.” But when she looked up the “nonprofits” her kindly mother had been donating to, she found that most of them were totally fake, or else gave so little to charity that they hardly deserved the name.
A senior resident of the San Juan Islands, “Dorothy” had fallen prey to scammers, who packed her daily mail deliveries with official-looking surveys or emotional requests for help from nonexistent charities – addressing her by name. Every one sounds urgent, plastered with bold-face phrases like “IMMEDIATE ACTION REQUIRED.” On quiet island days with not much going on, it was difficult to ignore the daily commands or pleas that showed up in her mailbox.
“I need your help,” reads one letter from the National Cancer Research Center. “More than 550,000 Americans will die from cancer this year alone. We need all the help we can get to continue our laboratory research and national cancer education programs.” Come to find out, parent organization Walker Cancer Research Institute is rated zero out of four stars by watchdog group CharityNavigator.org. Nearly 90 percent of the donations it receives goes to more fundraising, while just 4.3 percent is spent on the programs it claims to fund.
Many of these sham nonprofits mimic the names and addresses of legitimate charities, differing just slightly from the real deal, by two digits of an address or using the word “foundation” instead of “center.” For example, entities like “Kids Wish Network” and “Children’s Wish Foundation International” take advantage of the credibility of the real nonprofit, Make-A-Wish Foundation – only these two put just 2.5 percent and 10.6 percent, respectively, of what they raised toward aid in 2014, compared to the respectable 75 percent given by the actual Make-A-Wish Foundation. While New York-based Breast Cancer Research Foundation is highly respected, others with similar names are less than stellar: the “American Breast Cancer Foundation,” “Breast Cancer Relief Foundation,” “Woman to Woman Breast Cancer Foundation,” and sadly, many more.
According to an investigation of federal tax filings conducted by the Tampa Bay Times and The Center for Investigative Reporting, from 2004 to 2014 the “50 worst charities in America” received more than $1.35 billion in donations. Of that, $970 million went not to victims, but to the people who collected the money.
Playing on residents’ sense of responsibility, envelopes are packaged to look like bills that must be opened and paid, or like communication from the federal government, especially in regard to Social Security. They aim to inspire fear and urgency. Some mailings contain manipulative ploys like real postage stamps attached to the return envelope, a small check designed to elicit a larger check in return, or a sweepstakes entry if you donate. And when you do get deceived into giving money to one of these scammers, they add insult to injury by selling your information to other scammers, increasing the flood of deceptive missives delivered to your home.
Organizations going by names like “The Seniors Trust,” “The Council for Retirement Security,” “National Council for Survivors,” or “The Seniors Center” send out surveys along with requests for money, telling seniors that their financial lifeline of Social Security income is at risk of being cut unless they donate. Many of these use Washington, D.C. addresses to appear legitimate. If you receive questionable mail claiming to be from the federal Social Security Administration, don’t send any information or money. Instead, call the local Social Security office in Mount Vernon, at 800-772-1213, or TTY 800-325-0778.
Because these mailings can appear so close to the names of legitimate charities, it’s important to check details very carefully before sending any money or giving out personal information.
Undersheriff Brent Johnson said most reports heard by the San Juan County Sheriff’s office are about phone scams, but they do also hear of some by mail.
“If people are scared, they won’t slow down and look at things, and they won’t catch it,” he said. “When you get these letters, slow down, don’t be afraid of it, read through it.” And if you think you need to follow up, he said, get out your phone book and call the agency that has supposedly sent you the mail.
For many people, instead of responding to mailed charity requests, it’s wisest to proactively research and select a few charities you trust and truly believe in and then set your donations on automatic debit so you know your money is going to a good cause.
Another way to avoid being scammed is to give locally to credible nonprofits based here in the islands through the Orcas Island Community Foundation (360-376-6423 or online at oicf.us).
San Juan County senior services specialist Jami Mitchell says she hears more frequently about phone scams than mail scams. She says senior services providers are concerned right now that seniors may be vulnerable to a scam involving Medicare.
All Medicare cards will be reissued in April 2018 as part of a plan to reduce Medicare fraud by de-linking seniors’ social security numbers from their Medicare numbers.
Scammers have reacted by trying to extract Medicare numbers from seniors or to get seniors to pay them fees (supposedly for their new Medicare cards), mainly by telephone.
“We don’t want people to be Medicare fraud victims,” said Mitchell. “The change in cards, ironically, is meant to help prevent fraud, but they have to get everybody these new cards in the meantime.” She added, “Medicare isn’t going to call people asking for their information. They already have it.” Mitchell said people should call the Washington State Senior Medicare Patrol at 800-562-6900 for help or to report suspected scams involving Medicare.
Seniors should be encouraged to ask for help if they’re feeling unsure about a piece of mail. They can check in with a friend or adult child who knows how to research on the internet; call the county sheriff at 360-378-4151; or visit their local senior center for help (Mitchell is based at the Orcas Senior Center at 376-7926).
After carefully sifting your mail, checking in with local resources and choosing vetted charities for your giving, you can feel confident when you take that pile of dodgy envelopes and stick them where they belong – in the round file with the “recycle” symbol on it.