Recurring Donation Scams

Ideas and Issues
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donation scams, charity scams, philanthropy scams

April 9, 2021

New Orleans      Let me start by saying, a healthy skepticism about automatic, recurring deposits from anyone’s bank account is absolutely old school, but is also at the heart of good sound financial management. I don’t care what they told you in your personal finance and free enterprise class in high school. Access to your personal bank account and your own fragile finances should be acts of love, not business. It should be for your cherished memberships, subscriptions, charities, or family support. These should be for decisions never entered rashly, but with open heart, not to satisfy the demands of some open hand.

Hundreds of thousands of families in Texas have taught us this painful lesson about utility payments when suddenly their accounts were hit for thousands of dollars in the recent price surges. When my mother passed away, I had to kill her credit card finally to stop Time magazine from sending her a subscription and a calendar. I debate the recurring charges for the Times, Post, Journal, and gym on my credit cards regularly, but at least all of them are honest and forthright about the times to renew and any changes in charges, and I have a love mixed with hate relationship with all four as well.

Their honesty about recurring deductions is in sharp contrast with the Trump and Republican campaign machines for example. As Trump was running low on funds at the end of the 2020 race, it turns out they jacked escalating and weekly recurring donations from contributors based on infinitesimally small print hidden in the documents. Some poor souls found their accounts drained of thousands. The various Trump campaigns were forced to refund almost 10% of what they had raised through these methods based on complaints and cries of fraud from former supporters. We’re talking about more than $122 million in refunds!

Part of the problem is the way campaigns of all persuasions are using pre-checked boxes, forcing someone to uncheck the box to NOT give a donation, rather than checking the box to give one.  We’re in the land of “nudges” now, as behavioral scientists call them. Unions have used “negative checkoff” tactics in union shop states for years, where a prospective member would have to check a box to NOT pay dues, rather than signing up to pay dues, so none of us are pure here, even though political campaigns may be pushing the bar lower and lower.

A Washington Post columnist cites a Princeton study on the latest in manipulative tactics including these kinds of appeals:

  • A small donation will make a world of difference.
  • They are only your donation away from making their goal.
  • They claim your donation will be matched.
  • They make the appeal very personal.

Of course, his view is an outlier. He claims to have never given a contribution, which is almost a desertion of citizenship in our modern age, and certainly an indication that he hates politics, rather than loves it.

Nonetheless, he and Princeton aren’t lying. Over recent months, I’ve made five donations. In two cases, they were for Congressional candidates in Little Rock and New Orleans, and in one it was our local sheriff. All had helped our organizations in key fights over the years, so how could I not return in kind. Interestingly none of them used any of these tactics. Same for a comrade and friend’s race for the legislature in Montana. I also made a contribution for a candidate for mayor of New York City, Maya Wiley. Her campaign uses all of these tactics and more, and I’ve been texted, emailed, and inundated since I made my donation, but I’m okay with that. I worked under her father, Dr. George Wiley, in the NWRO. I’ve known her and her family since she was a girl. I’ve had breakfast at her house near Prospect Park in Brooklyn with her own family and her mother. I got her on the board of a foundation years ago. Is she the best candidate for Mayor? Does she have a chance to win? Who knows? I don’t vote in New York City, but I feel great about my one-time donation, because it was the right thing for me to do, given my history with Maya.

Nonetheless, when it comes to recurring donations and your own bank account, it’s caveat emptor – the buyer beware – all the way! It doesn’t take that much longer to write a check, and even at fifty-one cents for a stamp, that’s still less than PayPal and some of the other will take off the top!