FRAUD RESOURCE CENTER
En español | If you’re a person with strong political beliefs, you might jump at the chance to give a few dollars to support a candidate who shares your views or an organization that advocates on an issue you care about. Scammers are eager to take advantage of your civic engagement by tricking you into contributing to a bogus political action committee, also known as a scam PAC.
Legitimate political action committees are federally registered groups formed to raise and spend money to elect or defeat candidates. Scam PACs exist primarily to raise money for themselves. They may claim to support a particular politician or cause, but the vast majority of donor dollars go to cover fundraising costs and enrich the organizers, who collect big salaries or run affiliated companies that charge the PACs inflated fees for services.
These sham PACs mount aggressive campaigns by phone, mail and social media to lure potential donors, often targeting older Americans. They might name-drop a prominent politician or high-profile media figure (who may not even be running for office), or press ideological hot buttons. In one case, a fundraiser even claimed some of the money would pay for attorneys to ensure the integrity of elections. (He pleaded guilty in 2019 to a federal fraud charge.)
Some PAC scams are more like charity scams, soliciting money to supposedly support law enforcement officers, veterans or cancer research. Whatever the pitch, the con can be lucrative. One operator of bogus PACs defrauded tens of thousands of donors of more than $1 million before he was caught. Another admitted to fraudulently raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for multiple 2016 presidential candidates, much of which he diverted to personal and travel expenses, including hotel minibars and a deep-tissue massage. Both got prison time.
Other political scams ramp up as election season heats up. You might get a call from a purported pollster, who promises a gift card or other reward in exchange for your opinions — they just need your credit card number to cover shipping or taxes. Or, the caller will offer to help you register to vote or even cast your ballot by phone (things no state allows). It’s just a ploy to get personal information such as your Social Security number or date of birth for use in identity theft. Exercise your right to hang up.
- A PAC has a name that sounds more like that of a charity. PACs registered with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) are supposed to focus on political activity.
- The PAC’s website does not list the names of the people running it or provide contact information.
- A caller claiming to be a pollster or elections official asks you for personal or financial data.
- Do go to a candidate's official campaign website to learn about the candidate or make a contribution.
- Do check out a PAC before you donate. You can look up individual groups and get detailed information on their fundraising, spending and leadership at the websites of the FEC and the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.
- Do create a “refusal script” with potential responses to high-pressure fundraising requests. For example: “Let me review the organization and get back to you,” or, “I’ve already determined my donations for the year.”
- Don’t make donations or provide personal or financial information to organizations that contact you out of the blue.
- Don’t give in to pressure to contribute by a particular method. Scammers may push you to send a check, for example, ostensibly because it means processing fees won’t be taken out of the donation but really because it makes it harder to dispute the charge.
- Don’t give to a PAC that does not ask about your citizenship status and employment. Real PACs do so because they are legally barred from taking donations from federal contractors and foreign nationals.
- Don’t provide private information to political canvassers. They should not ask for personal information other than whether you are registered to vote and who you plan to vote for.
About the Fraud Watch Network
Whether you have been personally affected by scams or fraud or are interested in learning more, the AARP Fraud Watch Network advocates on your behalf and equips you with the knowledge you need to feel more informed and confidently spot and avoid scams.
- If you think you’ve been the target of a political scam, contact the FBI field office in your area. If the activity occurred on social media, report it as well to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.
- If you have questions about an organization involved in a state or local election, contact your state’s attorney general and secretary of state.
Updated September 3, 2020
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