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How to Tell When an 'Official' Notice Really Isn't Official

1/14/2012

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By Randy Hutchinson

President of the BBB

Special to The Commercial Appeal

What would you think if you received a letter with this language on the envelope – “Warning: $2,000 Fine For Any Person Interfering or Obstructing With Delivery Of This Letter. U.S. Mail TTT.18 U.S. Code”?

Is it possible the sender wants you to think it’s some sort of official mailing from the government that you need to open immediately? Additional language on the envelope says that time sensitive material is enclosed and requests a response within five days. In this column, I’ll offer advice on two topics – these kinds of mailings and a troublesome industry that makes use of them.

One of the challenges direct mail marketers face is getting their solicitations opened rather than consigned immediately to the round file. I remember a credit card solicitation that was mailed in a box rather than a standard #10 envelope. It certainly cost more to mail, but if more people opened it and ultimately accepted the offer, it paid for itself.

The question is when does “creative” cross the line into “deceptive”? The crooks who send out phony lottery and sweepstakes letters are particularly imaginative in designing their envelopes to entice recipients to open them. We have samples with return addresses of “Department of Allocations” and “Monetary Disbursal Department”. Some contain official looking seals.

I become more concerned when the creative marketing extends to the contents of the envelope. One company sent local consumers a letter that suggests they’re due a refund of thousands of dollars on mortgage interest they’ve paid. It talks about a mortgage audit having been performed based on city and county records and includes a listing number that looks like an official property recording number.

The solicitation appears to be from the government or the homeowner’s mortgage company. There’s no company name on the envelope or the letter. The fine print, however, does say it’s not a government offer and contains three initials that I was able to determine are another name for a company in Utah. The FTC calls some offers like this “forensic mortgage loan audit scams.”

Whether these solicitations are deceptive is in the eye of the beholder. The BBB Code of Advertising says that an advertisement as a whole can be misleading even though every sentence is literally true. My advice is to read any solicitation carefully, including the fine print. Don’t be mesmerized by creative language. Be particularly wary if there’s no company name and address on it.

In an earlier column, I warned about offers from companies that sell vehicle service contracts, also known as extended warranties. The language I cited in the opening paragraph of this column came from a solicitation I received from one such company. A Germantown resident sent me a solicitation from another company with almost identical language.

These solicitations are often designed to look like they’re coming from the manufacturer of your car when they’re actually being sent by unrelated companies. While some of the companies are legitimate, others mislead consumers about what repairs are covered. Do your research before buying one of these vehicle service contracts.

Remember the language about the enclosed materials in the solicitation I received being time sensitive, requiring my immediate response? It attempted to sell me an extended warranty on a car that was totaled in an accident two years ago.

Printed with permission by The Commercial Appeal.

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