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Solicitations Are Tricky Business

Don’t be fooled by phone calls or mailings that target older Americans

One of the worst side effects of turning 60 is the increased number of misleading phone calls and mailings that I get. It’s bad enough that folks out there are spending their time dreaming up ways to part me from my money. But the bigger insult? So many seem to assume that people over 60 will fall for anything.

For instance, the other day I picked up the phone to hear one of those annoying robo-calls that try to entice you to push the number 1.

“Martha,” said the prerecorded male caller with a plummy English accent, “this is an important health alert. Martha, this is the National Bureau of Medicine for the Elderly.”

Ah, yes, the good old National Bureau of Medicine for the Elderly. A better reporter probably would have pushed “1” to see what the nonexistent bureau was peddling, but I was busy with something else, so I just hung up.

Don’t be alarmed

The more frequent calls, annoying though legit, are trying to sell me an extended warranty or a credit card. But the recording often suggests, at least to my ear, that I have an existing relationship with the caller. Often such calls begin with words intended to alarm, such as, “Don’t be alarmed, but this is your last chance to …”

My auto warranty expired about four years ago by my choice, so I am not likely to be alarmed by someone telling me that it is my last chance to extend it. But I am more than a little annoyed by someone calling and trying to sell me something I neither need nor want, especially since I’ve been on the Do Not Call list for several years.

I took that call to see what would happen. I learned that if you push “1,” someone asks for your auto make and model number and other information that anyone affiliated with the place where you bought your car would already have. You could, if you wanted to waste their time as they waste yours, always say, “Just a minute, I have to go look that up,” and then leave the phone off the hook (or on hold) until they give up and disconnect. You know how long we elderly fools can take to find things.

Then there’s the mail, arriving in official-looking envelopes with offers worded to obscure their real purpose. Take for instance, the “Urgent Letter Express” I received with a blurry, dark circle on the envelope containing a portrait of an eagle encircled by the words “Tamper Proof Seal.” Had to be important, given that it was also marked “Mail Delivery Service—Urgent.”

It turned out to be one of those vacation offers designed to snag you for a sales presentation. The name of the sponsoring company was nowhere. When I called and, after a couple of questions, got the name, it was a company that had been the subject of many complaints by consumers on their blogs and had also been mentioned in a TV news report on misleading mailings.

Last week’s mail included a notice from the official-sounding National Response Center of Salt Lake City. “The Government has Addressed the issue of Long Term Care!” it announced. In italics below, it said: “In a study by AARP, long-term care averages over $77,000 per year, and private insurance and Medicare cover less than 3% of these costs.*” That asterisk leads you to a note that the study was the 2008 MetLife Market Survey of Nursing Home & Assisted Living Costs. And under that, the disclosure: “This is a solicitation for long-term care insurance.”

Well, at least they disclose, however obscurely. More boldly, they warn that “the government has made it clear that senior health-care programs will not expand to provide long-term care. In fact, benefits for seniors have been further limited by the Balance [sic] Budget Act (PL105-33).”

That would be the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, 12 years ago. As we used to say in the newsroom where I worked, “This just in!”

Too good to be true

My favorite mailings, though, have come in the past two years in identical multicolored formats, touting penny stocks that seem not to be actually listed. “This online technology stock could soar over 750%,” claimed one, which featured a box: “Explosive Growth Forecast, 1 month: 300%-400%, 3 months: 900%-1200%, 1 year: 2000%-2200%.” One of the reasons the company’s potential was so great, according to the flyer, is that “it operates in a $1 trillion industry.”

“Turn $5,000 into $25,000 in weeks,” it said on the reverse side, along with a photo of a guy in a suit jumping for joy. “The one stock perfectly positioned at the center of this unprecedented growth opportunity—with the potential to explode at any moment and appreciate 300-400% in only 1 month if not days!”

At the bottom, in teeny, tiny print, clearly not designed for wearers of reading glasses, the disclaimer: “This informational mailer does not purport to provide an analysis of any company’s financial position, operations or prospects and this is not to be construed as a recommendation or an offer or solicitation to buy or sell any security.” So I guess they were just kidding when they said: “Load your portfolio with [this stock] before the rest of the world finds out.”

Oh, and lest I forget, there was the offer I got that represented an “unprecedented growth opportunity” because it served such a huge growth industry. That industry was the bleeding and nearly left-for-dead automotive sector. Too bad I passed on the invitation to invest in “One of America’s Most Secretly Kept Investment Opportunities.”

Martha M. Hamilton, formerly with The Washington Post, writes a regular column, Your Financial Future, for AARP Bulletin Today.


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