“I’m calling on behalf of the National Save the Police Fund,”* the voice on the phone told me. “We support police officers who risk their lives daily protecting our communities. Can the police officers count on you?”
Gotten calls like this? So have we all. At the end of 2021, robocalls raising money for police groups were the highest-volume phone messages in most major U.S. markets, according to Nomorobo, a robocall-blocking company that works with AARP on fraud prevention.
These callers typically use language that suggests they are charities raising money directly for local police. But what’s the truth.
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The answer is that, in many cases, these aren’t charities at all. Instead, they’re “independent, expenditure-only” political action committees, or super PACs. Why does this matter? Simple: less scrutiny. Charities face relatively rigorous review from the Internal Revenue Service, and most states require them to register before they can operate there.
Super PACs generally have far fewer state-level reporting requirements and are regulated by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), which has fewer enforcement options than the IRS. The result: a rise in super PACs that use sympathetic-sounding causes primarily to line their own pockets (the FEC has called this subset “scam PACs”).
I recently took about a dozen of these “police-support” calls to hear the pitches. The first thing I noticed was that I wasn’t talking to live people; the answers all sounded scripted and recorded. In fact, former employees of these types of fundraisers have testified about how they used soundboard technology to play prerecorded messages as responses, in part so they could talk to several donors at once.
On each call, my questions about how donations got spent mostly went unanswered. Only one replied directly: 90 percent went to fundraising, and 10 percent went to police support. Wow! That means of a $35 donation, no more than $3.50 goes to their stated cause.
To find out more about these organizations, I probed the FEC website, where super PACs report their activity. I quickly identified over 70 super PACs with “police” or “law enforcement” in their names. I looked up one called Law Enforcement for a Safer America PAC, which seemed to be especially active, based on Nomorobo’s monitoring. It was raising money using four different police-oriented names (one “association,” two “coalitions” and one “support fund”). In the first half of 2021, this organization reported donations of $4.3 million; expenditures were just under $4.2 million, the bulk of this going to overhead — fundraising, lawyers, lead lists and so on. I found a few small line items labeled “legislative services,” but none that appeared to go directly to supporting police.
Another useful fact: Organizations that file reports with the FEC have to list a treasurer. This particular super PAC’s treasurer is a former cop who was arrested for stealing $50,000 from the police union for which he served as president. The case has not yet been resolved.
Are the money-gathering techniques these “scam PACs” use illegal? Sadly, it comes down to their choice of words during a pitch; it’s unlawful to misrepresent how the money will be spent. But as I learned, these callers are masters at evading any such disclosure.
Now, the last thing I want to do is discourage you from giving to causes you care about, like supporting police. Below are a few tips for screening for legitimate charities. But these telemarketers bombarding our phone lines? Just hang up. Law enforcement has a tough enough job without having to put up with charlatans masquerading as heroes.
Safe Charitable Giving
- Research and choose charities to support. Never give based solely on a phone, mail, email or social media pitch.
- Read their tax filings. Just search the charity’s name along with the number “990” (the IRS form for charities).
- Verify charities via your state’s secretary of state office, Charity Navigator or other independent screeners.
*Name fictionalized for legal reasons