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The Savvy Senior: How to Stop Junk Mail and Prevent Mail Fraud

Jim Miller | Jun 29, 2011, 4:18 p.m.
Mail fraud is the junkiest of junk mail.

Dear Savvy Senior,

How can I reduce the junk mail my elderly mother gets? She gets around 25 pieces of junk mail each day, and I just discovered that she’s given away nearly $2,000 over the past year to many of the sleazy groups that mail her this junk. How can I stop this?

– Frustrated Daughter

Dear Frustrated,

Millions of seniors get bombarded with unwanted junk mail these days, including mail fraud schemes that you and your mom need to be particularly leery of. Here’s what you can do to help.

Senior Alert

While junk mail comes in many different forms—credit card applications, sweepstakes entries, magazine offers, coupon mailers, donation requests, political fliers, catalogs, and more—the most troublesome type that all seniors need to beware of is mail fraud. This is the junkiest of junk mail that comes from con artists who are only trying to take your money.

Mail fraud can be tricky to detect because there are many different types of schemes out there that may seem legitimate. Some of the most common mail scams targeting seniors today are fake checks (see fakechecks.org), phony sweepstakes, foreign lotteries, free prize or vacation scams, donation requests from charities or government agencies that don’t exist, get-rich chain letters, work-at-home schemes, inheritance and investment scams, and many more.

If your mom is getting any type of junk mail that is asking for money in exchange for free gifts or winnings, or if she’s receiving checks that require her to wire money, she needs to call the U.S. Postal Inspector Service at (877) 876-2455 and report it, and then throw it away.

Unfortunately, once a person gets on these mail-fraud mailing lists, it’s very difficult to get off. That’s because these criminals regularly trade and sell mailing lists of people whom they believe to be susceptible to fraud, and they won’t remove a name when you request it.

Knowing this, a good first step to help protect your mom is to alert her to the different kinds of mail fraud and what to watch for. The Postal Inspection Service offers some great publications and videos (see postalinspectors.uspis.gov) that can help with this.

Another option is to see if you mom would be willing to let you sort her mail before she opens it so you can weed out the junk. You may want to have the post office forward her mail directly to you to ensure this.

If your mom feels compelled to donate to certain charities, ask her to let you check them out to make sure they’re legitimate. You can do this through your state’s attorney general or charity regulator’s office—see nasconet.org for contact information or look into charity watchdog sites like charitywatch.org, give.org, and charitynavigator.org.

Reduce Junk Mail

While scam artists aren’t likely to take your mom’s name off their mailing lists, most legitimate mail-order businesses will. To do this, start with the Direct Marketing Association, which offers a consumer opt-out service at dmachoice.org. This won’t eliminate all her junk mail, but it will reduce it. The opt-out service is free if you register online, or $1 by mail.

Then, to put a stop to the credit card and insurance offers she gets, call the consumer credit reporting industry opt-out service at (888) 567-8688 and follow the automated prompts to opt her out for either five years or permanently. Be prepared to give her Social Security number and date of birth. You can also do this online at optoutprescreen.com. If you choose the permanent opt-out, you’ll have to send a form in the mail.

Some other resources that can help are the National Do Not Call Registry (donotcall.gov, (888) 382-1222), which will cut down on your mom’s telemarketing calls, and catalogchoice.org, a free service that lets you opt her out of the unwanted catalogs she receives.

Savvy Tip: If you don’t want to hassle with stopping the junk mail yourself, you can hire a private company (like 41pounds.org or stopthejunkmail.com) to do it for you for a small fee.

Jim Miller is a regular contributor to the NBC Today show and author of The Savvy Senior Book. www.savvysenior.org.

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