Christopher Elliott, MintLife columnist and consumer advocate, is answering a reader question today. See what he has to say about how to stop unsolicited mail for an elderly relative.
Question: I have a question regarding mail solicitations to the elderly. My dad has lived at the same address since 1980 and over the years, he’s sent a check or two to different charities.
He now receives three to four solicitations a day by mail. My son started putting all of the letters into paper sacks and over a year he filled about six paper bags. And I mean, filled.
We know that my dad sends checks out randomly to these “charities” — mostly out of guilt because they send T-shirts, calendars, and pillows.
Is there any way to make them stop? Our family is really frustrated with the amount of solicitations and don’t know what we will do if my son ever moves out.
— Diane Deards, Corona, Calif.
Answer: This problem is fixable, but it’s not an ideal solution. In a perfect world, you’d be able to add a spam blocker similar to the one email services use to weed out unwanted messages.
Unfortunately, that’s not possible. Why? Because these paper spammers have paid the US Postal Service to deliver their mail. Allowing you or your father to add himself to a “do not solicit” list, similar to the FTC’s Do Not Call Registry, would mean the post office would potentially have to refund the money it’s been paid, a post office spokeswoman suggested.
I wish there were a way to filter out at least the catalogs and coupons I get every day. If there were a spam filter, I’d also add my 93-year old grandmother to it. She’s a lot like your father — sending checks to charities, often for no other reason than they wrote a compelling pitch or sent a “free” calendar.
It’s shameful, the way some organizations prey on the elderly.
Here is how you can help combat your father’s unsolicited mail:
Ways to Cut Down Your Junk Mail
“To express their mail preferences, consumers can choose from a variety of services, ranging from directly contacting individual companies to registering online for free services,” a postal service spokeswoman told me.
She recommended three sites: DMA Choice, Catalog Choice, and Opt Out Screen.
But you may want to think twice before clicking on these these pages. For example, in order to use DMA Choice, you have to surrender an uncomfortable amount of personal information to register. That alone may be enough to stop the average person from signing up.
DMA Choice tries to persuade you to opt in to — not out of — magazine offers. You have to hunt for a button at the bottom of the opt-out page to stop all magazine solicitations. The site is run by the Direct Marketing Association, which represents the people who sent your father some of the unwanted solicitations.
I tried managing my credit card offers through DMA Choice, and it took me to another site that handled offers from Equifax, Experian, Innovis and TransUnion. I couldn’t opt out of their offers through the website for longer than five years. I’ll have more on them in a minute.
Catalog Choice is also a little problematic. On the very first screen, it automatically opts you in to its own email list. You have to uncheck a box to opt out. Seriously. You then have to identify the companies spamming you — it’s impossible to just stop all catalogs.
Catalog Choice tries to sell you a $35 per year subscription to a service that stops data brokers from selling your information, which is something they shouldn’t be doing in the first place.
Opt Out Screen, which has an agreement with DMA Choice to handle its credit card opt-outs, is another industry-run site. It’s a joint venture between the major consumer credit reporting companies, which, of course, want to send you as many offers as possible. Again, the process is anything but user-friendly.
If you’re a savvy computer user with an eye for detail, these sites might help you. If not, you could sign up for even more unwanted mail.
Really, all consumers are looking for is a place they can tell the postal service: enough! No more unwanted mail. That doesn’t exist.
How to Report Questionable Mail
The postal service has one more option for your father: he can report any questionable mail to the postal inspector. But by then, it’s usually too late. The check has been written and cashed.
Like you, I believe businesses don’t have the right to invade our homes with credit card offers, catalogs and solicitations to donate to a random and potentially fraudulent charity. Also, I think we should opt in to any offers we receive, not out of them.
Until that changes, people like your father and my grandmother remain in danger of getting scammed.