Why so much charity junk mail? And so many scams?

Kay Bransford’s elderly mom had a generous but lonely heart — her husband had passed away recently –  so she began donating to charities that sent her solicitations by mail. Pretty soon, that led to an avalanche of junk mail. At its worst, Bransford spent her visits with mom scrambling to hide about 200 solicitations every month — while mom was hoarding them.

The experience was so jarring that Bransford incorporated charity scam and junk mail awareness as part of a business she runs helping families handle finances for elderly family members.

She’s heard even worse stories from clients, often about professional fund-raisers taking advantage of those facing cognitive decline. Some charities call and lie to victims, telling them they’ve already pledged donations.  In another case, she had a client who would rattle off a memorized credit card pretty much to anyone with a good charity story.

“When I visited the (one) time…I hear her, she gets up and she answers the phone and she gives the credit card number,” she said. “I actually opened up the credit card bill and I see that she’s given away over $2000…money she did not have.”

In this episode of The Perfect Scam, we explore the murky world of charity fundraising. It’s full of actors who stay on the right side of the law but do things that would make you cringe.  After hearing from Bransford, I interview Laurie Styron, Director of CharityWatch. She has a lot of good advice for people taking care of elderly relatives — or any of us, really — who want to avoid being scammed or getting a lot of junk mail. Her main point: Be an active giver. Pick charities carefully, research them thoroughly, and don’t respond to emotion-laced outreach over the phone or through the mail.

The passage below, describing the type of charities that cause the most trouble, is fascinating. Please click play below to listen to the whole episode, or click here for a full transcript and audio player at The Perfect Scan home page.


Laurie Styron


[00:37:12] Laurie Styron: The predatory fundraisers, they tend to target with the most popular causes and the ones that, that are emotionally charged. So be particularly careful when you receive fundraising letters about sick or injured animals, children with cancer, disabled veterans, these kinds of things, right? There, there are other causes people can feel passionate about like the environment or climate change, right, but like these really personal, you know, sick, sick dogs, or, you know injured veterans. These are the causes that some of these um, predatory fundraisers, they really love to target because they’re really popular causes and they are also really easy to kind of draft emotionally charged appeals for. Those are the categories to, to watch out for in particular. Also, police and firefighter groups is another one. There are a lot of nonprofits that will also try to sort of play on your patriotism, so if you’re someone who’s like hey, I’m proud to be an American, and I support the troops and this kind of thing, I support my local police and firefighters, you know, there, there are fundraisers that know that, that there are people who feel that way and that they feel patriotic when they donate, and they will use that against you to take your donation and basically pocket most of what you give.

[00:38:33] Bob: And as her final rule of thumb, she says folks should think about pizza, cars, and charities the same way. Pizza, cars, and charities? Yep. Be careful how you spend your money, however you are spending it.

[00:38:48] Bob: And, and let’s face it, when you do that, you’re more engaged in what you’re doing with your money, right? It actually feels better to know more intimately what good is happening with your money and if you’re more confident that it’s going to the right place right?

[00:39:00] Laurie Styron: And that’s just general good advice for all of the ways that we think about our, our financial resources, right. I mean it’s just a good rule of thumb with everything is that you don’t want to be reacting to sales pitches and marketing material, and pre–, high pressure tactics or people playing on your guilt. I mean that’s just no; I mean it’s not a way to buy a car. It’s not a way to order a pizza. That’s not a way to donate to charity.


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About Bob Sullivan 1644 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.


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