Charity donors caught up in PAC scams; Plus: dispute erupts over pandemic mask "exemption" cards: Internet Scambusters #917
Political Action Groups -- PACs -- are being used as a front for a scam, raising millions of dollars from donors who think they're giving to charitable causes.
PACs are only loosely regulated and mainly support political causes but, as we approach the November elections, donors need to be aware of the risks of a scam, as we report this week.
We also have some disturbing news about so-called mask exemption cards and fliers, some of which have been declared as fraudulent.
Let's get started...
PAC Scams Blur Election Fundraising -- Plus Latest Covid Alerts
As we run up to the November elections, we'll be hearing a lot about Political Action Committees (PACs) -- and, no doubt, we'll be hearing too about PAC scams.
Political Action Committees are groups of like-minded individuals who raise and spend money on behalf of causes they support. Mostly, the cause is a political candidate or party, but not always.
PACs are always around but come to the fore at key election times such as the upcoming November elections for Congress and the Presidency.
There's a lot to play -- and pay -- for, and usually there's no shortage of citizens who want to contribute. Which is where the scammers come in.
PACs are not subject to tight federal control; that attracts scammers. They can set up PACs and avoid detailed scrutiny, using them as a front for their dubious activities.
Some have been accused of scamming by posing as charities (which they are not), while other individuals just pretend they're from a local PAC, take your money and run. Yet others are legitimate organizations who swallow up most, if not all, of their donations in salaries and "administration costs," just like some "charities."
One of the issues is that PACs are not subject to the same rigorous controls as charities, and some legitimate charities do have PACs to support them. It's a confusing mess.
One of the organizations representing charities has just issued a warning about the tricksters.
"Political action committees... are not the same thing as public charities, but some questionable actors from the charity world may be confusing donors into thinking otherwise," says the organization Charity Watch.
"These individuals appear to be operating, or providing the for-profit fundraising and administrative support for, what have been dubbed 'scam PACs' to enrich themselves at the expense of the donating public."
Other media, notably the New York Times and the investigative website Politico, claim there's been an alarming rise in scam PACs in recent years.
These groups of individuals often use names that make them look like worthy charities, seeking to promote their cause or support favored political candidates (though they can't donate to candidates directly).
The US Center for Public Integrity (CFPI) has published a list of almost a dozen organizations it alleges are masquerading as charities, using worthy names. But it says that in recent years it has identified 61 such organizations.
Most of the victims of PAC scams appear to be small-time donors who agree to donate in response to telesales calls. According to the CFPI, donors contributed more than $101 million to those 61 dubious organizations in 2017-2018.
In one particular case, only 2% of the money raised by a group of PACs, allegedly operated by the same person, were ever used to support a political or other cause.
Furthermore, an investigation by the global news agency Reuters, earlier this year, found that some of the PACs claimed to be supporting charities when they were, in fact, funneling some income to political causes.
"These so-called 'scam PACs' and their fundraisers exploit the gray zone between U.S. election finance and state charity fundraising laws," Reuters reported.
"They often are set up as super PACs, groups which in recent years have been empowered by the courts to raise and spend money in unlimited amounts, with little regulation."
However, it's important to point out that, as Reuters notes, the scam PACs represent only a sliver of the 6,800 such organizations currently operating in the US.
Can You Tell?
But how can you tell if your PAC caller is legit or not? Often, you can't, although high-pressure tactics to make you give are frequently a red flag.
Instead, if you receive an unsolicited call, don't donate until you've had time to check the organization out. Be skeptical of anyone claiming to be from a charity or raising money for a charity. You can also check them out at CharityWatch.org or CharityNavigator.org.
And if you want to contribute to a political cause, speak directly to the local office of the party you want to support and ask them for details of supporting PACs.
Coronavirus (Covid-19) Alert
A tiny proportion of people can't wear face masks. But there's no such thing as an official mask exemption certificate. That doesn't seem to stop people downloading supposed exemption cards from the Internet, carrying them around and brandishing them.
Some "cards," titled "Face Mask Exempt Card," appear to come from an anti-mask campaign organization calling itself the Freedom to Breathe Agency (FTBA). Although this may be a legitimate organization, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) has expressed concern about references on the card to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The cards, printable versions of which have been posted online, say that under the Act, the exempt holder is not obliged to disclose the condition that prevents them wearing a mask and warns of penalties against anyone who ignores the Act.
In other words, these documents imply the holder is exempt from wearing a mask and doesn't have to say why.
Some fliers allegedly carry the seal of the DOJ. The office of the ADA says these fliers are fraudulent.
"These postings were not issued by the Department and are not endorsed by the Department," says the DOJ. "The Department urges the public not to rely on the information contained in these postings and to visit ADA.gov for ADA information issued by the Department."
Since it's not clear how a person who genuinely can't wear a mask can document this, nor the extent to which mask-wearing regulations are being enforced, confusion reigns.
But if you're tempted to carry a card you found or downloaded online, you should be aware it's not official, in the sense of being government-authorized and is legally questionable. There are no "official" exemption cards. And if it's found to fraudulently use names or logos of government departments, you could end up in legal hot water.
That's it for today -- we hope you enjoy your week!