Some direct mailers are pushing the envelope.
Mailboxes are being filled with increasingly urgent, seemingly official messages from the government or banks.
But they're not. They're from marketers who are simply trying to get a consumer's attention in the daily clutter of bills, catalogues and advertisements.
There's the envelope with the logo of a house, similar to one used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, alerting the recipient of a "rate overpayment notification." Inside is a refinancing solicitation.
Or there's the yellow letter that on the outside bears a Statue of Liberty symbol and the words "United States of America" in Gothic print -- similar to a check issued by the U.S. Treasury. Inside, it's just another refinancing bid.
"We are seeing more than we'd like to see" of these misleading envelopes, said Patricia Kachura, senior vice president of ethics and consumer affairs for the Direct Marketing Association.
Some envelopes, she said, make it appear that the letters inside are notices about an existing financial account. Still others make it seem as if they are from a government agency, and many of the mailings make it appear that what's inside "is much more urgent than it actually is," Kachura said.
"From a consumer perspective, when a mailing misleads consumers as to who sent it and why it was sent, then it could be considered deceptive," she said. Her organization's ethics committee reviews at least three questionable envelopes monthly, often asking for corrections. So far, she said, all challenged envelopes have been changed or the mailing has been halted.
Especially concerned about solicitations that appear to come from the government, the Federal Trade Commission plans to post today a consumer alert about one particular scam that has prompted several consumers, especially senior citizens, to send thousands of dollars overseas.
"We are seeing people trying to use the government's good name to get consumers to part with their money," said Tara Flynn, an assistant director in the FTC's consumer protection bureau.
The scam is a new variation of an age-old sweepstakes fraud in which consumers are told that they have won thousands, sometimes millions, of dollars but that to get those winnings they first have to send in some sort of payment. Winnings are never delivered.
Under the latest scams, consumers have received mailings and phone calls from agents purporting to be from "the national consumer protection agency," the "national sweepstakes bureau" (a nonexistent agency), the "sweepstakes security commission" (also nonexistent), the FTC or the Department of Commerce's Bureau of Industry and Security (a real agency that regulates the export of sensitive goods and technologies), government officials say. To enhance their credibility, many of these telephone solicitations use Internet technology to make it appear that the phone calls come from a Washington number with the 202 area code.
As part of the current scam, the crooks also falsely claim to be agents of Lloyd's and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, sending faxes with fake letterheads demanding payment, usually for insurance, before the winnings can be delivered.
Similar letterheads and verifications prompted Utah resident Josephine Smith, 85, to wire approximately $45,000 to a foreign bank account -- in several different transactions -- to claim $4.5 million. After Smith was first solicited for money, her son Clair Smith demanded verification from the official and the company. He initially received a fax from the "sweepstakes security commission," then others claiming to be from Lloyd's and the "customs office" in Costa Rica. Customs and Border Protection has no field offices in Costa Rica.
"I trusted my mother and the official-looking material," Clair Smith said.
The FTC's Flynn declined to say how many complaints the agency has received, noting that it is commission policy not to confirm or deny pending investigations or to comment on them.
However, she said, "it is illegal for anyone to lie about an affiliation or endorsement by a government agency or well-known organization."
Misleading mail solicitations are not new. In 1988, Congress enacted a law to combat deceptive mailings aimed at seniors by barring the misuse of any symbols, emblems or references to Social Security to convey the false impression that the letter was approved, endorsed or authorized by the government.
The current mailings designed to look as if they come from banks and government agencies stem from a simple business principle, said Kachura of the direct-mail trade association. "If you want consumers to open the envelope, you have to give them some incentive, and obviously this is one way."
Florida-based WallStreetList.com, a direct-mail firm that recently sent out the yellow letter with the Statute of Liberty and Gothic lettering on the outside, said there is no way consumers would mistake the solicitation for a check from the U.S. Treasury.
"Any government check comes in a brown envelope," chief executive Patrick English said. "It's a different color scheme completely," he said. The Statue of Liberty is "to remind you that you own property in America."