When Is a Census Not a Census?
When it targets seniors and asks for money
With U.S. Census Bureau workers busily conducting the first phase of the 2010 population count, the word census has become part of this year’s vocabulary. What a great time for scammers to throw in a little “census” taking of their own.
A recent windfall of junk mail has produced several of these, along with several more petitions, all of which target seniors and want money. Here’s a look:
1. The first is the official-looking “registered” document called the “2009 Census of Senior Citizens,” bearing “voter identification” and “exclusive census phase” numbers. (I got two of these.) The accompanying letter says, “You have been selected as a representative of your voting district to take part in the official Census of Senior Citizens.” Then you’re asked to answer 14 hot-button questions. But when you get to the end, you discover that you can’t return it without donating. It asks a minimum of $6 to help cover their mailing costs, but more would be better, by check or credit card.
That was enough to prompt residents of southeastern Idaho to report the mailing to the local Better Business Bureau in April, which promptly issued a press release about the “money-making sham.” While it looks like a product of the U.S. Census Bureau, the mailing is courtesy of the Council of Seniors, a social policy program of a group called Civic Council, a lobbying group. Similar surveys were conducted in 2005 and 2007, with results posted at the Council of Seniors site.
The council’s site notes its three main programs are the Benefit Security Coalition, the Council of Seniors (both of which focus on Social Security), and the Senior Legacy Foundation (which concerns itself with the “death tax”). In 2006, prompted by a different fund-seeking mailing by this group, ConsumerAffairs.com tried without success to discover who the Civic Council was.
The BBB has harsh words for the council. It accused them of targeting seniors “knowing that they tend to vote in greater numbers and tend to respond more readily to government information requests than younger people. . . . In reality, any financial contributions made will land squarely in the pockets of scammers who couldn’t care less about what seniors think about healthcare, taxes or immigration.”
The U.S. Census Bureau never asks for financial contributions or credit card information from the people it surveys, nor does it target age groups. The BBB says to “shred the fake survey.”
2. The “Citizen Census of Senior Voters” comes from the Council for Retirement Security and is a one-pager that asks seven questions related to Social Security. At the end, it asks for a check or credit card contribution, of course, noting that $15 will help them contact 43 more seniors.
I received not one, but two of these mailings, which—from the envelopes they came in to the letters and even the questions asked—were vastly different. I would venture a guess that this was intended to trick me into donating twice to the same organization. How’s that for respecting seniors?
Trying to get to the bottom of just who the Council for Retirement Security is, is complicated. The search starts with Lew Uhler, who is founder of the National Tax Limitation Committee (NTLC), a grassroots taxpayer group that lobbies to limit state and federal spending. Under his leadership, NTLC has forged various “coalitions,” one of which is the Council for Retirement Security. But this link is never disclosed on the mailer, and in fact, the letterhead calls the council “a program of Our Generation,” another nonprofit.
From there, the online trail goes cold. Neither Our Generation nor the council has a separate Web site. The only place I found Our Generation was at Maryland’s Secretary of State’s site, which notes the group is “in compliance with the Maryland Solicitations Act.” The organization is registered under the name of Rita Smith, which explains the signature on the letter accompanying the census. Although Smith signed the letter, her affiliation with the Council for Retirement Security was never disclosed.