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by Sid Kirchheimer, AARP Bulletin, February 9, 2009
The timing of the green post card from National Data Research couldn’t be better. With its bold headline, “New Government Program for Seniors Over 62,” the unsolicited mailing offers some welcome promises in these tough economic times: the chance to pay off existing mortgages and credit card debt, make home repairs and renovations, even the ability to “enhance your lifestyle.”
Just sign the postage-paid card, list your phone number and your age and your spouse’s, and you’ll receive “free information about how much money you qualify for.” After all, the card notes, “It is your Legal Right as a United States Taxpayer to receive all the Information available to you.”
What is not disclosed anywhere on the post card is its real purpose: to collect your contact information so it can be sold to vendors of reverse mortgages. And from there, it could be sold to other salesmen, resulting in unwanted mail and telephone solicitations.
Although there is nothing illegal about selling reverse mortgages, which let property owners collect money borrowed against equity they’ve acquired in their homes, this recent mailing is another example of correspondence that masquerades as official government offerings when it’s anything but.
In this case, National Data Research is another official-sounding name used by Acc-U-Lead, a Texas-based company with a long history of mailing what authorities call deceptive mailings that target older citizens.
Earlier this decade, Acc-U-Lead was among several companies all operating at one address that were fined $200,000 by federal officials and ordered to cease similar mailings. “By falsely promising additional Social Security payments, the anonymous mailings tricked [citizens] into parting with coveted personal information,” according to a report from the Social Security Administration. The report noted that one company sharing the Acc-U-Lead address was United States Senior Services, the same name used in another Acc-U-Lead mailing that triggered a cease-and-desist order by the Oregon insurance commissioner for illegally hawking insurance to older people.
In another instance, the Texas attorney general took action against Acc-U-Lead’s owner, Ronald Morgan, for misleading older property owners by illegally offering an “elderly tax freeze” for a fee—again, using “misleading correspondence that appeared to be official government business.” In that ruse, Morgan’s mailings were sent by the “State and County Tax Redemption Center” and generated some 1,600 consumer complaints in one Texas county before a restraining order was issued against him.
Morgan was reportedly out of the country when Scam Alert called his Acc-U-Lead office for comment on the latest mailings.
Another company official, Chris Taylor, denies that Acc-U-Lead’s mailings are designed to confuse consumers into thinking they are from government agencies. “We use the name National Data Research because we are mailing data nationally,” he says.
Taylor further claims that his company’s nationally distributed mailing was updated to accurately reflect that it is to offer information about reverse mortgages. “We clearly spell that out,” he says. On its website, Acc-U-Lead claims its for-sale leads are “legitimate requests from senior homeowners who want to know more about reverse mortgages.”
Yet the post card forwarded to Scam Alert in December, soon after arriving at the home of a Virginia retiree, mentions nothing about reverse mortgages, only the vague promise of government money. (AARP offers accurate information on reverse mortgages and how they work.)
“It’s unfortunate that these companies take advantage of the gullibility of large numbers of senior citizens by masquerading as a U.S. government agency,” notes the resident who received that mailing. “I knew it was a scam. But I didn’t know it was about reverse mortgages. No one would, based on that letter.”
The bottom line: Don’t let an official-sounding name fool you, in letters, e-mails or phone calls. A bona fide government entity can easily be checked with an online search, and these copycats are likely to be scammers who ask for upfront fees for “free government money.” Or, like Acc-U-Lead, they may be businesses that make money from selling your personal information to others.
“We’ve sued lead-card companies numerous times, but we need consumers to file complaints with our office,” notes Tom Kelley of the Texas Attorney General’s Office. “And the same applies to residents of other states: Contact your attorney general if you receive them. It’s a cookie cutter scam; these companies try to trick people into thinking they’ll get some kind of special information. We urge people not to respond.”
The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse offers tips on how to remove yourself from mailing lists. And the Federal Trade Commission offers advice on how to recognize phone scams that purport to offer grant money or other government incentives.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life (AARP Books/Sterling).
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