Bamboozled September 12th, 2016: Save Social Security! Group accused of scams targets N.J. seniors

A complaint-laden organization that solicits donations nationwide is making a play in New Jersey.

“You have been specifically chosen to represent Mercer County in this Referendum on Social Security campaign,” said a pitch letter received by Bob Lampert of Ewing.

“The National Council for Survivors is a grassroots organization that works to protect the hard-earned Social Security benefits owed to America’s seniors,” the letter said.

The four-page missive warned that Social Security could go bankrupt, “leaving you and me with little — or even none — of the money we worked so hard to save.”

“I got upset right away because it was something about ending Social Security,” said Lampert, 82. “Social Security is naturally very dear to me, as it is to many others.”

But pretty quickly, Lampert was suspicious.

He recognized the letter had many warning signs of a scam: telling the recipient to “rush,” saying the recipient had been “specially selected” and saying the mailing was “exclusive.”

It also asked for money.

A one-time donation of $16.45.

“I need to send Referendums to every county in America… and your $16.45 will help me send an additional 36 Referendums on Social Security to citizens across America who feel the same way as you and me,” the letter said.

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A redacted copy of the one-page “referendum” with donation information.

It included a one-page form with two payment options: a $16.45 donation, or “other.”

You could pay by check or credit card.

The page had the “referendum” itself, which asked the voter to choose:

“YES: I support protecting Social Security for the citizens in Mercer County who spent their lifetime saving for retirement.”

Or:

“NO: Residents in Mercer County no longer rely on Social Security during retirement and it can be used by the federal government as they wish.”

The return address was a post office box in Washington, D.C.

The letter never says what will be done with the “referendums” or who in Washington, D.C. or elsewhere would be presented with the group’s findings.

Lampert shared the letter with a friend, who recommended contacting Bamboozled.

“I’m so conscious of all these scams that are going around,” Lampert said.

He didn’t want others to fall for what he believed was a con.

“You can see how some things might attract a person to participate, whether it’s out of wanting to preserve Social Security or being afraid someone is going to take their Social Security check,” Lampert said.

We decided to take a closer look.

DIGGING DEEPER

Lampert was right to be guarded.

The letter was signed by Sharon Flint, the founder of the National Council for Survivors. The bottom of the first page had the words: “A Program of American Service Council.”

A quick Google search showed both of the groups are the subject of many dozens of online complaints.

The complaints name the National Council on Survivors, the American Service Council, Flint, the “founder,” and other related groups.

American Service Council has a website, but it doesn’t say much about its initiatives. It offers links to news stories about financial issues that are important to seniors, but little about its own work.

In fact, there’s not really any specific information about the group’s work, or its successes.

National Council of Survivors is one of the “projects” listed on the site, but there’s no additional detail.

Interestingly, American Service Council doesn’t seem sure of its own group’s name. The letter was from the National Council for Survivors, slightly different from the project listing on the website, National Council of Survivors.

The “About Us” page boasts the American Service Council sent over 7 million letters and correspondence to “concerned citizens across the country. The American Service Council also collected millions of petitions for delivery to Washington, DC.”

But where they were delivered, or to whom, isn’t mentioned.

Looking around online, we found lots of complaints about the group’s mailings and about Flint.

Past campaigns included ones about survivor’s benefits and immigration reform.

And in June 2016, a nearly identical campaign to the mailing Lampert received was reported in Minnehaha County, South Dakota.

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A look at how the group spends its lobbying dollars. 

We wondered how the group spends its money.

According to OpenSecrets.org, a website that tracks lobbying, the American Service Council has been spending lobbying dollars since 1998. The last year that shows spending is 2011, at $10,000. That’s far lower than the $80,000 it spent in 2008 and 2009, the group’s most active years, according to the site.

And though the letter talks about the $16.45 as a “donation,” donations to this group are not tax-deductible as a charitable contribution.

In tiny print on the payment form, it does say: “Because we lobby on your behalf, your donation is not tax-deductible.”

The group is a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization. The IRS says such a group “must not be organized for profit and must be operated exclusively to promote social welfare.”

501(c)(4) groups are tax-exempt, but unlike 501(c)(3) charities, donations are not deductible, the IRS says.

BEFORE YOU DONATE

We reached out to the American Service Council, and its attorney responded via email.Christopher Craig offered information about the group, including its tax status and that its headquarters were in Virginia.

“Its mission is to educate and give all Americans a voice and a platform in Washington, DC on the issues close to their hearts, such as Healthcare, US Economic Security, Religious Freedom and Social Security Protection among others,” Craig wrote.

He said American Service Council has mailed letters to supporters and prospective supporters throughout its history to ask for assistance with the group’s “advocacy social welfare mission.”

“ASC collects responses and lets Members of Congress know that their constituents are watching and paying attention,” he said. “Of ASC’s projects, preserving entitlement programs for seniors is of utmost importance. Through letters to legislators, petitions and surveys, ASC reminds elected officials that when they discuss issues like Medicare reform or changing Social Security, they are affecting the lives (and the peace of mind) of seniors who need these vital programs to survive.”

He said the group doesn’t work, support or advocate for candidates.

We asked for more detail, including what lobbying successes the group has had, where else in New Jersey these letters were sent, and how many. We also asked how much money has been collected and how it would be spent.

Craig didn’t respond.

American Service Council is a registered charity in New Jersey, something that’s required by law for those that raise more than $10,000 a year.

The group reported to the Division of Consumer Affairs that 61 percent of its funds go to charity, 12 percent goes to pay management costs and 27 percent is spent on advertising.

Any time an organization — charity or not — solicits money, do your research before donating.

Check on a charity by calling Consumer Affairs’ Charities Registration Hotline at 973-504-6215, or go online to the Charities Registration page at NJConsumerAffairs.gov.

You can also read more about charities at NJConsumerAffairs.com/brief/charity.pdf. 

Look up the charity on websites such as CharityNavigator.org, GuideStar.org and FoundationCenter.org.

Find out how much of the charity’s collections go directly to those in need compared to how much is spent on administrative costs.

Also make sure the charity has filed with the IRS as a nonprofit, then check to see what kind of nonprofit it is so you can determine if your donations are tax-deductible.

Finally, pay attention to the language used by the charity when it asks for donations. If it tries to induce fear, uses high pressure tactics, warns that you must act quickly? Those are all red flags.

And if you’re approached for a donation over the phone or by a knock on your door, tell the rep to send you something in writing you can investigate before donating.

Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.