How to Keep Your Grandparents From Being Ripped Off by Mail Scams

How many “official” notices and sweepstakes entries did you receive in the mail last week? Read this to find out what is allowed and what to do about lawbreakers.


I have a 79-year-old mom who seems to be on every political and religious mailing list known to man. Every day, she gets a new batch of letters emblazoned with words like “special notice,” “official survey due” and “final attempt: invoice enclosed.”

Of course, the special notice is simply an appeal for money, the official survey asks a few questions from a partisan group (and by the way, can you send a donation to support the cause?) and the invoice is actually a sales pitch. Other mail may have sticky notes, fonts that look handwritten or return addresses that fail to disclose the business. Check out this inventive junk mail sent to a Maine woman in 2012.

Today’s seniors can be vulnerable to all sorts of confusing direct mail. Marketers are counting on them not to realize that the survey didn’t come from the Census Bureau and the invoice isn’t for something they agreed to purchase.

Even those of us in a younger generation can be a target. Anyone who’s purchased a vehicle can attest to the onslaught of official-looking mail that arrives trying to sell extended warranties. It has become so bad that we no longer trust legitimate notices when they do arrive.

Check out this 2013 video about a senior who had lost nearly everything to various mail and phone scams. It’s a shocking story.

After watching that video, you can understand why it’s so important to keep junk mail away from those you love, especially the most vulnerable. While the information below doesn’t cover all of the different types of mail you may receive, here are three of the major categories:

1. Rules for sweepstakes and contests

Sweepstakes are big business, and some of these mailed promotions are outright scams. Others may be from legitimate companies that are hoping recipients will make a purchase while sending in their sweepstakes entry.

Businesses planning to use a sweepstakes to sweeten their solicitation must include all of the following information in the mailing.

  • State in the rules and on the order form that no purchase is necessary to enter.
  • State that a purchase does not increase the chances of winning.
  • Include all the contest terms and conditions.
  • List all prizes, their value and the odds of winning each one.
  • Disclose the sponsor of the promotion and its contact address.

If a sweepstakes promotion includes a reproduction of an award check, it must clearly state it’s non-negotiable and has no value.

For contests involving some level of skill, the number of rounds in the contest must be disclosed, as well as the identity of the judges and their method of judging. These contests may charge an entry fee, but the potential total cost of all rounds must be revealed. In addition, the contest sponsor must estimate and disclose the likely number of people expected to pass a round by correctly solving a problem or successfully completing the skill contest.

2. “Official business” that isn’t so official

The Deceptive Mailing Prevention Act of 1990 was intended to help curb the flood of government look-alike mail. While it may not have completely curtailed the number of mailings bearing official-sounding names, insignias and seals, it has put in place some requirements to make unofficial “official” mail easier to spot.

By law, any solicitation that implies a connection or endorsement by the federal government is not permitted. For example, mail that says it’s been approved by the postmaster general is a no-no. So too is anything that suggests federal benefits may be affected if a purchase is not made or that tries to sell services available free of charge from the government, unless a statement notifying recipients of that fact is included.

The law, in theory, sounds like it should prohibit government look-alike mail. In practice, there is a huge loophole for official-looking mail to climb through. Right after prohibiting these mailings, the very next paragraph of the law goes on to allow them as long as they include a disclosure stating they do not contain official government correspondence. Specifically, the upper-right quadrant of the front of an envelope or wrapper must include the words “THIS IS NOT A GOVERNMENT DOCUMENT” in at least a 12-point font. A second, longer disclaimer must be listed on the contents in at least 30-point font.

3. Sales pitches disguised as invoices

Mailings designed to look like invoices are another common tactic used by some businesses. Sometimes they scream “THIRD ATTEMPT” or “FINAL NOTICE” to scare you into thinking you’re about to go to collections if you don’t pay up.

As with sweepstakes and government look-alike mail, these types of solicitations are legal as long as the company adheres to certain standards. For these mailings, the following disclaimer must be listed in at least 30-point font on the solicitation itself.

THIS IS NOT A BILL. THIS IS A SOLICITATION. YOU ARE UNDER NO OBLIGATION TO PAY THE AMOUNT STATED ABOVE UNLESS YOU ACCEPT THIS OFFER.

However, the law does not appear to require any disclaimer on the envelope or outer wrapper.

What to do with suspected fraudulent mail

If you find yourself on the receiving end of what could be fraudulent mail such as a sweepstakes without rules or a fake invoice without a disclaimer, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service is who you want to call. The office’s hotline is 877-876-2455. You can also fill out a complaint form online.

In the meantime, if you want to read more about what is and is not allowed, you can find it all spelled out in the Domestic Mail Manual. Click here and then scroll down to Section 9 for the details as well as examples of the required disclosures.

You’ll also want to read Stacy Johnson’s advice on how to stop junk from filling your mailbox in the first place.

Have you been on the receiving end of fraudulent mail? Do you think the current law is sufficient or should more be done? Let us know about your experience and opinion in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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