As hard-luck stories go, this one was a doozy.
It was a letter from a woman identifying herself as Janetta Hames, “a wife, mom and grandma from Texas.” She says she volunteers at her church and at her youngest daughter’s school. Her son is in the Coast Guard. Her older daughter is a middle-school choir director.
“I have several diseases,” Hames says. These are: Systemic lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, interstitial lung disease and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which, according to the Mayo Clinic, involves “overly flexible joints and stretchy, fragile skin.”
“My treatments for these diseases cost over $50,000 a month,” Hames says in her letter, “and even after insurance pays their portion, I am still left with a bill of about $5,000 EVERY MONTH.”
For that reason, she says, she is “reaching out to people in the United States to ask for help.” A check for $50 would be great, but “any amount would be appreciated.”
A stamped envelope is included with the letter (addressed to a mailbox-rental firm in a Fort Worth strip mall). Or you can send a payment via Venmo or PayPal.
Beverly Hills resident Pat Hollander, 78, and her husband received this letter the other day.
“We didn’t know what to make of it,” she told me. “Is it real? Is it a scam?”
And the big question: “How did she get our address? We don’t know who this person is.”
Let’s take those one at a time.
Is it real? At first glance, the letter is intriguing. It makes its appeal for funds without any typos, bad syntax or other red flags. Hames includes a pair of photos that, if they’re her, show she’s attractive and has a nice smile.
She even offers, in return for a donation of $50 or more, to paint a rock and send it to you. She says she’s part of the Kindness Rocks Project, which encourages people to leave rocks painted with inspiring messages for others to find.
Is it a scam? Well, let’s put it like this.
I managed to reached a Janetta Hames at a cell number linked to an address in Saginaw, Texas, north of Fort Worth.
Ms. Hames? I asked.
I identified myself as a reporter, said a reader had sent me a copy of the fundraising letter and said I’d like to ask a few questions.
She hung up.
I called back and repeated that I’d like to speak with her about her situation and her fundraising campaign.
“I’m kind of busy right now,” Hames replied and hung up again.
Subsequent calls went unanswered.
A Google search turns up a page on a site called Begslist, which describes itself as “a cyber begging and online panhandling site.”
“Hello!” it says. “We’d like to tell you about our friend. She is an amazing wife, mom and grandma.” It proceeds to mirror pretty much everything in Hames’ fundraising letter, except it’s written in the third person. It has the same photos as the letter.
The Begslist page seeks donations of $20 rather than $50. Last time I checked, not a single donation had been received.
Is it a scam? I can’t say for sure one way or another.
I can say, though, that a Janetta Hames with the same Saginaw address as the woman I reached by phone filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection in 2011. Thousands of dollars was owed to credit card issuers, payday lenders, debt collectors and a number of healthcare facilities.
The bankruptcy filing was in the name of Janetta Leigh Hames, also known as Janetta L. Hames, also known as Janetta L. Evans, formerly known as Janetta Leigh Bozeman, formerly known as Janetta Leigh Kisloski, formerly known as Janetta Leigh Redus.
Hames is 46.
How did she get Hollander’s mailing address? And not just that address. Hollander said her neighbor received the same letter.
The most likely answer is that Hames went to a data broker — there are thousands — and said she wanted to purchase lists of people in affluent neighborhoods who have contributed money to various causes. Hollander said she falls into such a category.
Is it really as easy as that to target people with direct-mail solicitations?
“Sure, absolutely,” said Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy for San Diego’s Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. “Data brokers have lists of everything, and they know more about us than most people realize.”
Mari Frank, a Laguna Niguel privacy consultant, agreed it would be a simple matter for anyone to obtain lists of potential donors in well-to-do neighborhoods nationwide.
“Very easy to buy,” she said. “Our addresses are on lists everywhere.”
Such lists can cost just pennies per address and can include hundreds or thousands of households.
For the sake of argument, let’s give Hames the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say everything she says in her letter is true and she really is facing $5,000 a month in out-of-pocket medical costs.
That certainly doesn’t reflect well on our healthcare system. The idea that a sick person, with insurance, has to go begging among strangers to pay for treatment is a harsh indictment of a system that conservatives say is second to none.
That said, it’s not clear how Hames’ total medical bills run $50,000 a month, or $600,000 a year. For example, the average annual cost of treating lupus — an autoimmune disease that can affect the kidneys and other organs — is about $13,000, according to a fact sheet from the Lupus Foundation of America.
Judging from her bankruptcy filing, Hames has gone through some hard times. We all deal with hardship in different ways.
My sense, however, is that anyone who would go out and purchase the names and addresses of wealthy marks is probably not someone you should be taking at face value.
Past experience also tells me that if someone really had a sincere hard-luck story to tell, and a reporter from a major newspaper gave a call, that person wouldn’t hesitate to seize such an opportunity.
So I’m comfortable saying Hollander made the right decision in not sending Hames any cash.
I’ll also advise others to steer clear of such overtures from any individual or organization you don’t recognize. Legitimate charities routinely buy mailing lists from data brokers, but you can check their bona fides on sites such as Charity Navigator and Charity Watch.
Helping others is a good thing, make no mistake. If you’re feeling generous with your time or money, don’t hesitate to do whatever you can.
But keep your eyes open. You don’t want to trip on any rocks, painted or otherwise.