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Beware of ‘Scam PACs’ and PACs that Scam

Tricks can leave political donors hoodwinked.

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Zhanna Kavaliova/Getty

Fundraising for the 2022 midterm election and the 2024 presidential election are already in full swing. The Democratic National Committee bragged that in the first 100 days of the Biden administration, it raised $15.4 million. Meanwhile the Republican National Committee said it raised $44.4 million. This is all while some corporate donors put their political donations on hold in light of the January 6 insurrection at the capitol. This will make fundraisers all the more eager to go after individual donors.

There are two things that political donors should be vary of: “scam PACs” and PACs that scam through pre-checked boxes on donation webpages.  

Scam PACs, as the name implies, are just bogus groups masquerading as legitimate political action committees. They gather money for a candidate or cause and then pocket the cash instead of giving it to the cause or the candidate. Scam PACs risk getting into serious criminal trouble because they are often guilty of defrauding donors.

PACs that scam through pre-checked boxes could also get in legal hot water, or at least they may have to return money that they have raised. 

The 2020 election was so bonkers between the pandemic and the flurry of lies that scam PACs flew under the radar. But they were there as they have been for several of the past election cycles.

The criminals running scam PACs target donors left, right, and center. As an individual who worked at an Alabama call center that solicited money for scam PACs told Reuters, “The motto was, ‘Leave your morals at the door.’”

There can be criminal consequences for running a scam PAC. For example Kelley Rogers of Annapolis, Maryland, who claimed to be raising money for Republican candidate for governor Ken Cuccinelli, was sentenced to 3 years. Kyle Prall of Austin, Texas, was sentences to 3 years in prison for raising over half a million dollars through scam PACs named “Feel Bern” (presumably targeted at Bernie Sanders supporters) and “Trump Victory” (presumably targeted at Donald Trump supporters). Scott MacKenzie of Arlington, Virginia, was sentenced to federal prison time for scamming donors through a PAC called Conservative StrikeForce and another called Conservative Majority Fund. He pleaded guilty to making false statements to the Federal Election Commission (FEC). And another convicted PAC scammer named Cary Lee Paterson raised $90,000 for an ostensibly pro-Bernie Sanders super PAC called Americans Socially United. He allegedly scammed “James Bond” actor Daniel Craig out of over $47,000.

For years, these scammers got away with this activity. But more recently, the Justice Department has been cracking down on scam PACs. This is a good turn of events. As Brendan Fischer of the Campaign Legal Center told the Center for Public Integrity, “Scam PACs have proliferated in recent years, and it is about time there is accountability for operatives who rip off well-intentioned small dollar donors who are trying to engage in the political process.”

A setback for regulating scam PACs came in 2019 when a federal judge knocked out an FEC rule that limited the use of a candidate’s name by PACs that did not actually support that candidate. This rule was aimed at curbing a big avenue for scam PACs. But in Pursuing America’s Greatness v. FEC, a federal judge ruled that the PAC-naming rule violated the First Amendment. And for similar reasons, the Federal Trade Commission cannot regulate political solicitations through its Do Not Call List because of First Amendment concerns.

So that’s the scam PAC problem in a nutshell.

What about PACs that scam? These are otherwise normal political action committees with questionable practices of pre-checking obscure boxes on their online donation pages that turn what is intended as a one-time donation into a recurring one. This is apparently what the Trump campaign did in late 2020 as part of its online fundraising efforts.

Some of the Trump pre-checked boxes on the fundraising webpage WinRed allowed the campaign to take more money from a donor on a monthly basis. But some were even more aggressive and triggered donations every week. As the New York Times showed in an exposé, many low-income donors had their bank accounts emptied or their credit cards maxed out because of these unauthorized recurring donations.

Some Trump donors called their banks or credit card companies to report fraud. The Times noted that “several bank representatives who fielded fraud claims directly from consumers estimated that WinRed cases, at their peak, represented as much as 1 to 3 percent of their workload.” The report also estimated that from June 15 to the end of 2020, 12 percent of Trump's online donors requested refunds.

The RNC apparently did the same trick with pre-checked boxes to trigger recurring donations in 2020, when many donors only meant to give once. And the GOP and other Republican fundraising committees have continued this pre-checked box gambit into 2021, according to independent journalist Judd Legum.

The FEC might act to crack down on scam PACs. At an open meeting of the FEC on April 22, the commission discussed a memo from the staff’s Scam PACs Working Group, which recommended improvements to help the public avoid potential scam PACs. According the FEC, “Chair Shana M. Broussard directed the working group to continue its work and expand on recommendations outlined in its memo and discussed during the open meeting.”

Meanwhile, in Congress, Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) has a Stop Scam PACs bill. This would be a step in the right direction, though she might consider amending it to cover the pre-checked donation problem too. But the bill is a long way from becoming law. Until it does, the rule is for donors is caveat emptor: every political donor needs to be careful that the recipient is who they think it is, and the amount is too.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center.