AARP and other lobbying groups are raising millions of dollars from senior citizens and then renting the donors' names and addresses to third parties. Some solicit the contributions with letters warning retirees their benefits may be in jeopardy.
Six seniors groups collected at least $18.8 million last year by renting out their mailing lists, a review of tax records shows.
Of that, roughly $16 million went to a for-profit subsidiary of AARP, which charges to share the names of its more than 34 million members with mutual fund, credit card and insurance companies it endorses.
It's hardly alone.
Robert Mahaffey, a spokesman for the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, which raised $27.6 million from donors last year, said the group's mailing list rentals are an important revenue source.
The rentals generated $1.3 million in the 1999-2000 fiscal year, according to the group's tax forms. Mahaffey declined to identify the parties renting the donor lists.
"We make it clear to our members that they have a very clear option to inform us that they do not want their names used in any other fashion, and we honor all those requests," he said.
A House subcommittee today will examine the fund-raising tactics of groups that target seniors. Its chairman said older Americans need to do their homework before donating.
"If they're talking about representing them on matters of congressional interest, talk to your congressman or congresswoman to see if these people are in fact coming into their offices, talking to them," said Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security.
A recent mailing campaign by Mahaffey's group, which opposes private investment of Social Security funds, provides an example of how some of the solicitations work.
"The push to privatize Social Security is underway," the group declares in bold black print on the envelope of a recent mailing.
"Privatization would put retirement security at real risk," the six-page letter says, asking members to donate $10 or more to authorize a media campaign "to counter all those who would tear down Social Security."
In smaller print on the back page of one of the inserts is the offer to let seniors opt out of having their names and addresses shared with others.
AARP doesn't conduct fund-raising solicitations for specific issues, such as Social Security, but rather charges members an annual membership fee that helps fund its lobbying and other activities. It rents its member list to endorsed companies that provide services to its members and informs members that their names may be shared, according to general counsel Joan Wise.
AARP spokeswoman Lisa Davis said her group believes it is different in that "the majority of dues go for information, education and community service programs. Less than 10% of our entire budget goes to lobbying."
A review of tax forms found at least four other seniors' lobbies made money renting donor lists last year: The Senior Citizens League generated $417,161; United Seniors made $614,587; the Seniors Coalition took in $481,335 and 60 Plus earned $35,110.