The FBI has detected a rise in “scam PACs” and is warning donors about making contributions when approached by new political groups.
The uptick in fraudsters targeting political donors comes amid a record surge in cash spent last election cycle — political spending in the 2020 cycle more than doubled 2016’s spending, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
A scam PAC is a political action committee that purports to be working toward a political goal but instead operates for personal profit or some ulterior motive.
“Check where the PAC is spending its money,” the FBI said. “If the PAC is registered and filing its quarterly reports as PACs are mandated to, a donor can search their ‘disbursements’ on the [Federal Election Commission] website. Look to see what vendors it is using. Often, in a scam PAC, you will see the vendors are also associated with the operators. That should be a red flag.”
Groups whose names are similar to longer-established groups also should raise alarm bells and prompt donors to do more due diligence, according to the FBI.
If an issue or a candidate is worth your cash, then they are worth taking the time to investigate their legitimacy, said FBI Special Agent Eric Miller in a statement on the FBI’s website. Mr. Miller recommends checking the FEC’s website for the names of PACs soliciting funds to determine whether they are legal.
The alarm about scam PACs comes as record sums are being spent on U.S. elections, providing more opportunities for fraudsters. Political spending totaled an estimated $14.4 billion in the 2020 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which more than doubled the 2016 cycle.
“The sky’s the limit in terms of how much a scammer can make,” said Michael Beckel, research director at campaign finance watchdog Issue One. “I think the internet age makes it very easy to raise money online, and I think one of the underlying concerns is you have a lot of elderly Americans that are not as internet savvy.”
Mr. Beckel noted that it’s not just older adults who get duped, however. The FEC fined a super PAC in 2016 for allegedly running a scam that ensnared actor Daniel Craig, known for playing James Bond.
Opportunities to snare more victims are increasing as the next election cycles are well on their way to smashing previous political spending records, too. Four of the five largest fundraising hauls in House and Senate races dating to 1999 have come in the first three months of 2021, according to an analysis from the Center for Responsive Politics.
Andrew Mayersohn, Center for Responsive Politics researcher, said there is a lot of bad activity scammers can accomplish without getting caught because spending donors’ money inefficiently is not necessarily illegal.
“There’s only so much law enforcement can do about this problem,” Mr. Mayersohn said.
Scam PACs felled by law enforcement have been caught money laundering, making false statements and committing wire fraud and mail fraud, among other illegal activities, Mr. Beckel said.
Later this week, the FEC is set to examine a proposal to better expose scam PACs online. The proposal would create digital tools on the FEC’s website that aim to provide better transparency of political groups and to make navigating the data easier for donors.