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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, June 14, 2006

So you think you get junk mail?

By Betty Lin-Fisher
Akron Beacon Journal

Frances Rebenack is a prisoner to her own mail.

There's mail everywhere around her house. Mail that comes in piles day after day and stacks up.

The 91-year-old woman said it's a full-time job just going through the stacks to try to find the few hidden bills.

"Their house looks like a warehouse mailroom because she's afraid to throw mail away until she gets a chance to look at it," said Dianne Demko, Rebenack's daughter. "It's obscene. She's just befuddled and overwhelmed."

The problem has been going on for years, but Demko has been helping her mother more recently, since Rebenack's husband, John, 88, has gotten ill.

Demko got so frustrated by the mounting piles of mail that she cut out the return addresses of every piece of mail that came to her mom's house in a three-day period, taped them onto pieces of paper and mailed it to us at the paper. There were 137 pieces of mail from what seemed like every nonprofit foundation and political candidate out there.

OK, that's probably an overstatement, but you get the drift.

Yes, most people get junk mail or, as those in the industry like to refer to it, direct mail.

But probably not as much as the Rebenacks.

Demko said it takes her mom a few trips to the mailbox to bring in each day's mail. Then she puts it in an ever-growing pile to look through.

After her mother spent a few days at her house recently, the Demkos went to the post office to pick up one week's worth of mail two tubs full. Four days later, she hadn't made a dent in that pile.

TOO GENEROUS

Frances Rebenack acknowledges that the mail problem is partly because of her husband's actions.

John Rebenack, who retired in 1980, was always a very generous man. Too generous, said his wife, who is in charge of sifting through the piles of mail solicitations, mostly from nonprofit and political organizations.

"This has been a big controversial issue with us," Frances Rebenack said of the relationship with her husband of 34 years, whom Demko describes as incapacitated and recuperating from a broken hip at a nursing home.

Demko said she and her mother tried to persuade him to stop donating so much.

"I told him, 'Somebody else at this point is going to have to save the pandas,' " Demko said.

"If someone has a sob story, he'll send money. Usually $25. I've told him time and again, they'll sell the list," said Rebenack.

And that's what has apparently happened.

'SUCKER LISTS'

John Rebenack's generosity has landed the couple on what are known in the industry as "sucker lists."

"The more you give, the more likely those organizations will swap their lists with other organizations," said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego.

Many senior citizens write checks for even small amounts $5 because of appealing solicitations, Givens said. And that's not to say there aren't a lot of worthwhile organizations out there that rely on the donations.

But anytime you donate, you open yourself up to more mail.

The problem is that once you're on a "sucker list," it's nearly impossible to get off or you have to take some pretty labor-intensive steps to stop the waves of mail.

Initially, Demko's frustration was aimed at the post office. She took a box of letters there and asked what it would take to mark them "return to sender."

But she was told that only works for first-class mail. Most bulk mailers pay a cheaper rate to send their advertisements and don't spend the extra money to request return service.

By law, the post office has to deliver the mail. Once it's delivered, it's up to the consumer to stop it, said spokesman David Van Allen. Customers can refuse delivery, but that's not going to solve a problem or stop the mailer from sending more, he said.

Demko's husband recycles the junk mail, so at least it's not all heading to the landfill.

But that's little solace to the family.

A FEW OPTIONS

For people who want to reduce the amount of junk mail they receive, there are a few options:

  • Register your address with the Direct Marketing Association or DMA. Once you're on the list, the trade organization's 4,800 members will take you off their mailing lists.

  • If you're willing to spend some money, pay $19.95 to www.stopthejunkmail.com, which will send stop requests directly to the companies for you. But it's a bit labor-intensive because you have to input each company into the site's database of 8,500 companies and nonprofits.

    Demko already registered her mom with the DMA a few years ago, but it didn't help because her parents have given to some of these organizations in the past and have an existing business relationship, which means those organizations don't have to comply with that list.

    ONE-BY-ONE APPROACH

    The only answer is for the Rebenacks or Demko to individually contact each organization.

    Which is why Demko said its worth it to her to spend the nearly 20 bucks and some time to have someone else help her stop her mom's mail.

    Bill Brown, owner of Harmon Research in Boulder, Colo., which operates www.stopthe junkmail.com, acknowledged that his company charges to perform a service for something people can do on their own. But many people are like Demko overwhelmed with not enough time.

    Brown said the advantage of his service is that the notice is sent immediately which means a quicker removal from lists.

    Said Demko: "It'd be worth a solid day's work to me (to gather the names) just to get rid of this mail.

    "To me, it's a terrible intrusion. The mail should be for your convenience."