President Donald Trump has been forced to pay back $122 million to donors who were tricked into making recurring payments to his 2020 reelection campaign.
A New York Times investigation found Trump's fundraising campaign employed deceptive fundraising tactics that saw thousands of his supporters unwittingly sign up to give repeat contributions, when they had only intended to make a one-off payment.
The 'scam', which involves pre-ticked boxes on fundraising emails often buried under lines of fine print, sparked thousands of complaints to banks and credit card companies.
In fact, there is a pyramid scheme aspect to the donor scam: He used the post-election “election fraud” fundraising to pay back to refunds from the pre-election campaign fundraising https://t.co/xy8x6bLyGd pic.twitter.com/OwQfFJDkgY— Asha Rangappa (@AshaRangappa_) April 3, 2021
Among the victims were elderly and military veterans, as well as some experienced political operatives, and many have been left with overdraft fees and busted credit card limits.
Complaints from donors prompted the Trump campaign to eventually reimburse $122 million in contributions.
One victim, Stacy Blatt, was battling cancer and living in a hospice in Kansas City when he donated $500 last September, the New York Times reported.
Blatt was charged another $500 the next day, and then $500 each week until October, and it was only after his rent and utility bills bounced that his family discovered what had happened.
'It felt like it was a scam,' his brother Russell, who helped Stacy get to the bottom of what had happened, told the Times.
Blatt died in February.
The Trump campaigns dubious pre-checked emails first appeared in March 2020.
A bright yellow box began appearing in emails with the words: 'Make this a monthly recurring donation.'
Anyone making a donation would have to opt-out to avoid being charged repeatedly.
Three months later in June, a second pre-checked box was added to Trump campaign fundraising emails.
Known as a 'money bomb', the second box had a much greater degree of success in ensnaring unsuspecting donors to sign up, as most thought unticking one box would avoid any additional charges.
Then in September, after learning he had been out-raised by his opponent, the Democratic nominee Joseph Biden, by $150 million in one month, the Trump campaign became more aggressive, The Times reported.
The recurring donation would now be taken out every week, instead of monthly.
And the campaign later added large blocks of bold, capitalized text to the boxes to make them harder to decipher.
Soon after Election Day, banks and credit card companies became inundated with complaints.
'It started to go absolutely wild,' a Wells Fargo fraud investigator told the New York Times.
In all, Trump has had to pay back $122 million in donations made to five organizations: Donald J. Trump for President, Trump Victory, Trump Make America Great Again Committee, Save America, and the Republican National Committee.
Another reason Trump had to refund such large amounts of money was because many of his individual donors exceeded the legally-allowed cap of $2,800.
This dwarfed the $21m refunded to donors by the Biden campaign.
Donald Trump forced to pay back $64 million over 2020 donation 'scam'https://t.co/Bt7WtCG5le— thomas cassidy (@Tmc3228Thomas) April 4, 2021
All of the donations were made via the Republican-linked for-profit donation-processing company WinRed, which charges 30 cents of every donation, plus 3.8 percent of the amount given.
Ira Rheingold, the executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates, told the New York Times the scheme was 'unfair', 'unethical' and 'inappropriate.'
A Trump spokesman, Jason Miller, pointed to internal campaign records which showed less than 1 percent of total donations to WinRed had been subjected to complaints.
'Our campaign was built by the hardworking men and women of America and cherishing their investments was paramount to anything else we did,' Miller told The Times.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.