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Recently, my wife was reading an article in the New York Times, “How Deceptive Campaign Fund-Raising Ensnares Older People,” that details how political campaigns take advantage of seniors. As I work at the Center for Senior Services (CSS), she pointed me in the direction of the story, which grabbed my attention. After conducting further research, I discovered that seniors have been victimized by political campaigns that implement deceptive practices. 

The article highlights that when individuals donate money online, campaigns employ prechecked boxes that automatically sign up donors for recurring payments. Donors have to uncheck the box in order to escape the recurring donation. According to the Times, it’s not just prechecked boxes, but seniors are targeted with headlines that reference “Social Security” and use provocative headlines like “Final Notice” and “lose the House for good” to encourage contributions. In addition, the Times reported on Victor Amelino, a California resident who is 78 and retired. He made a $900 campaign contribution that unknowingly increased to $8,000. Amelino said, “I’m retired. I can’t afford to pay all that damn money.” 

According to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and Political Data Inc., in California refunds from political donations during the 2020 election cycle skewed heavily towards seniors. For example, the average age for refunds was about 65 and around 60% of refunds went to individuals aged 60 and over. Clearly this is a problem impacting older Americans. 

However, hope is not lost! Recently the FEC, in a bipartisan unanimous vote, recommended that Congress pass legislation that bans political campaigns from automatically making one-time donations into recurring payments. Acting on the recommendation, Sens. Dick Durbin and Amy Klobuchar introduced legislation called, “Rescuing Every Contributor from Unwanted Recurrences” (RECUR Act) that forbids prechecked donation boxes from being used by political campaigns. “As we work to reform our campaign finance system, we must ensure that people are empowered to make their voices heard—but that will only happen if Americans trust that campaigns aren’t taking advantage of them through tactics like pre-checked recurring donation boxes,” said Klobuchar. “Following the FEC’s unanimous vote, it’s clear we should take action to ban this practice and ensure contributors are fully informed. This legislation will do just that.” 

In addition, New York, Minnesota, Maryland and Connecticut’s attorneys generals have begun requesting documents from both political parties to investigate this practice. New York Attorney General Letitia James in a letter wrote, “Our offices have significant experience with prechecked solicitations and other forms of ‘negative option’ marketing to consumers. We believe that such solicitations can be inherently misleading, and result in consumers making unwanted and unintended purchases.” 

Unfortunately, it’s not just political campaigns; political action committees (PACs) also prey on seniors. PACs are organizations that solicit money—depending on their classifications—for the purpose of spending the funds on candidates, political parties or independent political expenditures. According to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, reputable PACs spend less than 25% of their donations on fundraising and warn that most spending should be directed towards candidates and other political efforts. 

In 2019, in Montgomery County, Maryland, the Government Office of Consumer Protection (OCP) conducted an investigation into Heroes United PAC, an organization that claimed to support the volunteer fire department. According to the OCP’s findings, 90% of their revenue was directed toward telemarketing vendors that solicited donations, which were connected to the PAC. Furthermore, the telemarketers used Montgomery County area codes and addresses to make the PAC look legitimate. Ultimately, the two sides reached a settlement where the PAC agreed to refund all donations since 2017 and to discontinue contacting county residents.

Fortunately, the AARP published articles, “Fraudsters Use Political Action Committees to Rip Off Older Americans” and “Political Scams,” that provide useful cautionary information so seniors can avoid getting victimized. The AARP suggests visiting the FEC’s website to learn about how PACs spend their money, visit the PAC’s website to identify their senior leadership and warn against donating to organizations that contact you randomly and ask for private information. 

About a year ago the Pew Research Center released a poll that indicated 20% of Americans “trust the government in Washington to ‘do the right thing’ just about always or most of the time.” While I believe the federal government never gets credit for its success stories, sometimes you read articles like the ones in the Times, and it explains people’s lack of faith in elected officials. Sadly, money in politics is not going away, which means that we must remain vigilant against misleading campaign practices. Hopefully, legislation like the RECUR Act can be signed into law, which is an important first step toward protecting people, in particular seniors, from deceptive campaign fundraising.

Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Legislative Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. He holds a B.A. from American University in political science and a J.D. from New York Law School.  Prior to joining B’nai B’rith International he worked in the Office of Presidential Correspondence for the Obama White House, practiced as an attorney at Covington and Burling, LLP, worked as an aide for New York City Council Member Tony Avella and interned for Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.