'Medi-scare:' Behind the sinister fundraising mailers sent to Minn. seniors

Yvonne and Jody looking at mail
Jody Rooney (left) and her mother Yvonne Jensen (right) look through the mail that Jensen received on Dec. 13, 2012. Rooney says she's spent hours trying to get her mother off these mailing lists. But it's no easy task. Rooney said one group asked her to prove she had power of attorney over her mother, and several organizations have never responded to Rooney's calls and emails.
MPR Photo/Molly Bloom

Yvonne Jensen can't say exactly when the mail started to arrive, but it's become a mark of distinction at her Mahtomedi assisted living community.

"I'm called the bag lady because I carry the bags down to pick up my mail," said Jensen, 90.

Some days, Jensen hauls up to 70 official-looking envelopes to her bright corner apartment, and she regularly opens them hoping to find a dollar bill or some other prize meant to entice her into sending back a financial donation.

Jensen is among the senior citizens in Minnesota and around the nation who are the target of fundraising mail. Tax-exempt political groups pledging to protect Medicare and Social Security send out sinister, sometimes false, missives asking elderly people to send a donation to fight, for instance, an effort to raise "Medicare Premiums at a rate that is far faster and greater than the Cost of Living Increase allotted," as one letter from a group called the Federation of Responsible Citizens requests.

Sometimes dubbed "Medi-scare" mail, these types of solicitations have been around for years and are largely legal. Even in the digital age, it remains an effective way to reach older people who are at the center of a debate in Washington over whether to cut entitlement spending to close the deficit.

The groups behind the mail are difficult to track. Some have out-of-date websites, some list disconnected phone numbers, and there's little information available about what these groups do with the millions they raise each year. All are nonprofits, so they don't have to disclose donors.

Jensen's daughter, Jody Rooney, worries these groups are taking advantage of her mother.

Yvonne Jensen with mail
Yvonne Jensen, 90, stands in her Mahtomedi apartment on Dec. 13, 2012, holding one day's worth of mail. Some days, Jensen hauls upwards of 70 official-looking envelopes to her apartment, and she regularly opens them hoping to find a dollar bill or some other prize meant to entice her into sending a donation to the sender.
MPR Photo/Molly Bloom

"She's being targeted because of the wonderful things seniors have done to help with charities," Rooney said. "I don't like that some of the letters seem to be scary and are scaring seniors."

Floyd Brown, president of the conservative Policy Issues Institute, one of the groups that contacts Jensen, says his mailings don't say anything that hasn't been said on the U.S. Senate floor.

"If politics is scary, it's because of the fact that we're being so totally mismanaged as a country," he said.

EFFECTIVE PITCHES

The envelopes piling up in Jensen's apartment share some common traits: They look official, coming from places with authoritative but unmemorable names like the United States Health Congress or the Council of Seniors; many include personal messages, reminding recipients of their "pledge" to send money; they focus on the imminent dismantling of government programs or the impeachment of President Barack Obama; and they use exaggerated or false information to appeal for cash.

"President Obama and his allies on Capitol Hill are out of control. They are desperate for more cash to spend. And they are planning to grab your retirement money to fund their insane spending binge," reads one letter from National Grassroots Advocacy.

The letter asked Jensen to send $15 to $100 to prevent her benefits from being cut.

It's not clear how Jensen ended up on the groups' mailing lists, but it may have started when charitable contributions were made in her late husband's name, said Jensen's daughter, Rooney. Jensen is a Republican, so it's also possible a donation to former president George W. Bush made her information public.

Yvonne's box of mail
A box holding one day's worth of mail received by Yvonne Jensen on Dec. 13, 2012 in Mahtomedi, Minn. "I'm called the bag lady because I carry the bags down to pick up my mail," said Jensen. "There are times I had to call somebody at the desk to go into the office and push the mail through because it's so thick in there."
MPR Photo/Molly Bloom

That's a typical story. Groups soliciting Jensen likely rent donor information from campaigns, other nonprofits or from retail catalogs that target audiences open to a certain type of political message. Audrey Mullen, spokeswoman for the Federation of Responsible Citizens, said her group doesn't send mail to anyone who hasn't donated before.

But for all the mail that Jensen gets, most of it is coming from a handful of groups located in Washington, D.C. or its suburbs. The groups work under a variety of names, and it takes reading the fine print to find out where the mail originated.

The National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative organization that sends Jensen mail about Medicare and Social Security did not return MPR's calls for an interview. But Amy Ridenour, the group's chairman, explained her organization's approach to fundraising to the San Francisco Chronicle.

"People seem to respond better to emotion than they do with letters that have lots and lots of facts," she told the newspaper in 1998. "You have to give something that is light enough that people will be willing to read it upon receipt ... If they don't read it right at that moment, all the studies show they never will."

Amy McDonough, associate state director for advocacy for AARP Minnesota, said older people are targeted because there is a perception that they have a lot of savings. They are particularly susceptible to pleas having to do with Medicare or Social Security.

"It's not only means their health to them, but it also means their financial security," McDonough said. "When you combine the two biggest concerns that seniors have — their health and their financial security — those types of situations can be very ripe with fraud."

Fraud might be too strong a word, but the seven groups who send mail to Jensen typically raise millions each year. Despite impressive fundraising numbers, several listed substantial debt on their most recent tax forms.

WHERE DOES THE MONEY GO?

It's sometimes difficult to decipher how these groups are spending donations, or whether they're following through with the promises they make in their fundraising mail. Some spend just about as much as they raise to pay employees and raise more cash.

USL letter
The envelopes piling up in Yvonne Jensen's apartment share common characteristics: They look official, coming from places with authoritative but unmemorable names like the United State Health Congress or the Council of Seniors; many of them include personal messages, reminding recipients of their "pledge" to send money; they focus on the imminent dismantlement of the government programs or the impeachment of President Barack Obama; and they use exaggerated or false information to appeal for the recipient's cash. This letter is from the Uniformed Services League.
MPR Photo/Molly Bloom

MPR News tried to get a better sense of what happens to all the cash, but ran into multiple dead ends. Most of the groups list phone numbers that go directly to voice mail. Others list disconnected numbers on their mail or tax return forms. Websites are out of date or rudimentary, and some groups have no website at all.

Only two groups, the Federation of Responsible Citizens and the Policy Issues Institute, returned inquiries from MPR News.

Floyd Brown is president of the Policy Issues Institute (PII). He said his group uses donations to sponsor petition and letter writing campaigns to members of Congress, to get conservative messages to the public via its various websites, and to sponsor conservative conferences such as the Conservative Political Action Conference.

"We put every one of our dollars into messaging and advocacy," said Brown, who has long been involved in conservative politics, producing the "Willie Horton" ad of the 1988 presidential election and serving as founding chairman of Citizens United, the group at the center of a landmark Supreme Court case that gave unions and corporations the green light to spend unlimited amounts on candidates.

Despite the millions PII raises and spends each year, Brown said his group can't count many victories these days because the White House and the Senate have been controlled by Democrats.

"It's been very tough for conservatives the last couple of years," he said. "We worked very hard to try and defeat Obamacare."

Council of Seniors mail
The envelopes piling up in Jensen's apartment share common characteristics: They look official, coming from places with authoritative but unmemorable names like the United State Health Congress or the Council of Seniors; many of them include personal messages, reminding recipients of their "pledge" to send money; they focus on the imminent dismantlement of the government programs or the impeachment of President Barack Obama; and they use exaggerated or false information to appeal for the recipient's cash. This letter is from the Council of Seniors.
MPR Photo/Molly Bloom

Brown's other projects are closely tied to PII's work.

PII promoted and distributed Brown's book "Killing Wealth, Freeing Wealth," as well as his wife's book, "Condi: Life of a Steel Magnolia," a biography of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Brown said that he donates book royalties to organizations that promote his work, but did not answer direct questions about whether he donated profits from his or his wife's book to PII.

Brown also owns Excellentia Inc., a marketing firm that he says PII hires to do Internet work. When asked how much PII pays Excellentia each year, Brown said that information is on tax forms, but it is not.

Even if it's difficult to pinpoint how these groups are using their donations, it doesn't mean their mail is illegal, said Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, a project of the Better Business Bureau that reports on charities.

If solicitations are false or mislead a potential donor, or if there is proof the group is misusing money, it can amount to fraud, Weiner said. But it's a grey area when it comes to what can be viewed as political opinion.

"That's where a lot of these things fall under, unfortunately, and as a result some people get inappropriately scared into thinking their benefits are going to be immediately cut or if they don't make a contribution they might be in danger of not having what they're getting now," Weiner said.

PAST SCRUTINY

These groups have drawn scrutiny in the past.

In 2010, for instance, the FBI issued a public warning about a fundraising plea sent by the Civic Council for fear seniors would confuse it with that year's census.

And just last month, the Minnesota Board of Aging's Senior LinkAge Line has received five complaints over the course of a week — a high number, according to spokeswoman Patrice Vick — about a mailing from the Policy Issues Institute.

The letter, with "Benefits Denied" in bold at the top, urges the recipient to fill out the enclosed Medicare benefits extension "3ATSPP-B form" — a "form that could be the only way to protect you."

"Do not seal the envelope before including a generous contribution of $100," the letter goes on.

The aging board is working with the federal Administration for Community Living, which, in turn, is working with the federal Office of the Inspector General to look into the mailings, said Vick.

Brown says he's decided to discontinue the mailing, though he doesn't believe it is misleading.

GETTING OFF THE MAILING LIST

The election is over, but Jensen's mail keeps coming. Rooney says she's spent hours trying to get her mother off these mailing lists.

It's not easy. Rooney said one group asked her to prove she had power of attorney over her mother, and several organizations have never responded to Rooney's calls and emails.

Weiner pointed to a Direct Mail Association website that is meant to help people like Jensen get off mailing lists. But his best advice is to research organizations before giving.

"More often than not people are making decisions about whether to give based solely on the mailing without looking at anything else," Weiner said. "That's where you run into trouble because you are going to be disappointed."

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