When I first saw the official-looking piece of mail buried between catalogs and junk mail, I thought I’d done something wrong. It was covered in warnings: “2nd Attempt,” “Request for Immediate Action,” and “$2,000 fine, 5 years imprisonment, or both for any personal interfering or obstructing with delivery of this letter.” The envelope also listed the make and model of my car, so the sender clearly had specific information about me.
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Once I opened it up, the warnings continued: “Extremely urgent and time sensitive,” it said. But when I looked more closely, and read the fine print, I realized that what I was holding was just a deceptive—or clever, depending on your point of view—piece of advertising. It was from an unnamed company trying to sell me an extended service contract for my car. At the very bottom, the letter explained that I’d been selected to receive this “offer” based on “information in your consumer report or other data,” and that it was an advertisement.
Before tossing it in the trash, I decided to investigate further. Is it legal to send consumers mail that looks so alarming, and so official, when in fact it is simply an advertisement, and possibly a scam? I spoke with Lois Greisman, the associate director in the division of marketing practices at the Federal Trade Commission, the government agency charged with protecting consumers from deceptive business practices.
“It’s outrageous,” she said, after I described the piece of mail to her. And it might even be illegal. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s direct mail, a phone call, or online—if the content is false, it violates the law,” she says, adding that it’s false to suggest something dire is about to happen unless the recipient acts quickly.
Threatening imprisonment, she says, is particularly absurd. “It’s just harassing. It’s designed to intimidate … There’s nothing urgent, there’s nothing time-sensitive. All they’re doing is trying to sell you something,” she says.
As for that imprisonment warning, it turns out threatening such a major punishment is a common strategy of junk-mailers and scam artists. A bit of Web searching turned up dozens of other examples of people receiving similar threats via the mail, all on mail that was simply an advertisement for a product or service.
As Greisman points out, “Nothing from the government will have that kind of language on it.” Such threats might be designed to appear official, but in reality, it’s the first clue that the mail is from a sketchy source.
The problem of advertisers and scam artists impersonating the government is, in fact, somewhat widespread. “We see a lot of letterhead that looks like it’s from the FBI or Postal Service,” says Greisman, when it is not. (Impersonating the government is also illegal, and the FTC has brought cases against companies that do so.)
Earlier this year, Randy Hutchinson of the Better Business Bureau issued a warning about such mail, too. He points out that even if every sentence on an advertisement is literally true, it can still be misleading. He suggests being particularly wary of mail that arrives without any company name or address on it, as mine did.
In addition to being skeptical of mail that appears to look official and is covered with alarming warnings, Greisman urges consumers who receive such mail to file a complaint with the FTC, through its website, FTC.gov. The agency uses the complaints to help build cases and pursue legal action against companies who are engaged in deceptive marketing tactics.