William W. Vaughan Jr. was a senior atmospheric scientist at NASA during the space race and later an accomplished academic, but like so many aging Americans, his time and technology had lost some of his knowledge, especially online.
Computers made him feel “like a duck out of the water,” said his son Steve Vaughan. When Steve looked through the papers of the elderly Mr. Vaughan after his death in December at the age of 90, he was confused about what he found on his father’s last credit card statement.
The first item was known: $ 11.82 at the local Chick-fil-A in Huntsville, Ala. But every other charge on the first page, and there were dozens of them, went to the company that processes Republican campaign submissions online, WinRed. Over four months last year, Mr. Vaughan made 400 donations totaling nearly $ 11,500 to Donald J. Trump, Mitch McConnell, Tim Scott, Steve Scalise, and many others.
The sum far exceeded his financial resources, his son said, and indeed he soon discovered handwritten notes outlining his father’s phone call to dispute the fees with his credit card company. He’s still boiling over the avalanche of charges and “what they did to a 90-year-old” shortly before his death.
“If it happened to him,” he said, “I have to imagine that it happened to others.”
The dirty little secret of fundraising online is that the most aggressive and harmful practices campaigns use to raise money are particularly likely to ensnare unsuspecting older people, according to interviews with digital strategists and an examination of federal donation and reimbursement data.
Older Americans are critical contributors to campaigns, both online and offline. More than half of all online posts processed by WinRed in the previous cycle, 56 percent, came from people who reported their occupation as “retired,” according to federal data.
Digital agents of both parties employ a variety of manipulative tactics that can deceive donors of all ages: fake bills and official-looking correspondence; fake offers to pool donations and hidden links to unsubscribe; and pre-checked boxes that automatically repeat donations in what is widely considered to be the most egregious system.
However, some groups appear to specifically target older Internet users by distributing messages with subject lines such as “Social Security” that are particularly resonant for older people and disproportionately high in advertisements aimed at older audiences. In many cases, the most ruthless direct mail tactics have simply been restarted for the digital age – with ruthless new precision.
“Everyone knows what they’re doing: They cheat seniors to fill their own pockets and raise money for campaigns,” said Mike Nellis, a Democratic digital strategist who is critical of fraudulent practices.
“They target people who are less savvy online and more likely to believe what is presented to them,” said Nellis, lamenting tactics that “obliterate people’s humanity.”
It is impossible to tell how many older Americans will be fooled by such methods, since the age is not recorded on the federal records. A useful metric, say digital experts, is the number of donations being refunded – which is a common occurrence when donors feel dissatisfied or betrayed.
The New York Times analyzed the 2020 reimbursement data in collaboration with political information company Political Data Inc., which matched the reimbursed donors to the electoral roll. The results provide a rare glimpse of how disproportionately old is the universe of donors receiving reimbursements.
The results that examined refunds in a large and diverse state, California, showed the median age of donors receiving reimbursements was nearly 66 years for WinRed and nearly 65 years for ActBlue, the Democrats’ corresponding processing side.
Even more revealing, donors aged 70 and older were reimbursed more than four times as much money as adults under 50 – for both Republicans and Democrats.
More than 65,000 individual donors, who were reimbursed approximately $ 25 million in the last election, have been matched by name and zip code in California. The ages of donors being refunded in both parties were very similar, although Republican campaigns issued online refunds at more than three times the total Democratic rate, records show.
An investigation by the Times earlier this year found that the Trump operation automatically repeated donations weekly and disguised that fact with redundant text, resulting in a cascade of multi-million dollar refunds and a flurry of fraud complaints.
Several bank officials said the spate of complaints against Mr Trump’s operation came heavily from senior financiers. A fraud investigator recalled the case of an 88-year-old woman who feared her family would assume she had dementia because the repeated charges exceeded her credit card limit.
The exploitation of the dwindling solvency of older people goes far beyond politics. There is a entire initiative at the Department of Justice, which deals with elder abuse, and the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center almost reported $ 1 billion loss for people over 60 in 2020.
Most political tactics are legal, though the Justice Department recently called out non-existent promises to add donations as an example of “material misrepresentation”.
“You use data, technology, emotions and digital tactics to take advantage of a population,” said Cyrus Krohn, who oversaw digital strategy on the Republican National Committee more than a decade ago and now regrets some of his earlier work. “It’s like a kid in a candy store.”
Why older people are “the perfect destination”
Daniel Marson, a clinical neuropsychologist who has researched financial decision-making in aging Americans, said the elderly online face a double blow when they combine their unfamiliarity with technology and age-related cognitive decline.
The brain itself begins to change with age, said Dr. Marson and other neurological experts. Processing usually starts to slow down. Keeping track of multiple things is more difficult. The assessment of trustworthiness is becoming more and more difficult.
“They just don’t have the same digital literacy or ability to get involved in an internet world,” said Dr. Marson, the former director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Center at the University of Alabama in Birmingham.
Certainly, millions of aging Americans are still adept at using technology, and some do not cognitively deteriorate until very advanced in age.
But even the goofy delusions that millennials and digital natives might roll their eyes upon – like stress-inducing donation countdown clocks – can more easily distract or confuse many retirees who adopted computers later in life.
Some campaigns use subject lines such as “Final Notice # 33716980” – recently put in place by the Democratic Congress campaign committee – which can create the appearance of actual bills being insolvent. Some use breathless exaggeration, like a recent text from the House Republican campaign arm warning that the House would “lose the house for good!” if not everyone contributed $ 9 by midnight.
Many elderly people literally interpret personalized messages.
Tatenda Musapatike, a Democratic digital strategist, recalled having to explain to some older family members that Joe Biden was actually not the person who emailed them asking for money.
“It’s neither naive nor stupid,” she said. “It comes from the people who are less online.”
The daughter of a 69-year-old donor, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect her father’s privacy, described a phone call from her mother last year asking her to intervene in his excessive online posts. “Mom came up to me and said, ‘Dad donated $ 25,000,'” the woman said. Records show he made hundreds of donations through WinRed to a wide variety of Republican campaigns.
“He takes what they say as the truth,” she said, adding that he has begun to show the first symptoms of mental decline and insists that he did not donate as much as he actually did.
Despite unsubscribing him from as many email and text lists as possible, she remains concerned. “I can’t watch him 24 hours a day,” she said.
David Laibson, a professor of behavioral economics at Harvard who has studied the effects of aging on financial decisions, said studies showed that half of people over 80 have either cognitive impairment other than dementia or actual dementia.
“Who’s the perfect target?” he said. “You are in your early 80s, have a very high likelihood of cognitive impairment, and you probably still haven’t used up your nest egg.”
In fact, the records show that donors aged 80 and older were reimbursed more money than adults under 50, both at ActBlue and WinRed, according to the California reimbursement data study.
ActBlue and WinRed both said they work with customers to resolve issues they encounter but declined to comment further.
Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, the chair of the rules committee that oversees federal electoral administration, noted that many older Americans were particularly isolated during the coronavirus pandemic while also being forced to be more online to connect with family and friends . “They had no choice,” she said, “so it’s really easy to target them.”
Ms. Klobuchar, a Democrat, recently enacted law to ban pre-checked boxes that repeat donations after the Federal Electoral Commission unanimously recommended banning the practice in the Times investigation.
“Politicians are always vying for the votes of the elderly,” she said. “Then they cheat on her of money behind her back. It’s pretty bad. “
Some younger donors who are less internet savvy have also donated more than they intended.
Marian DeSimone, the mother of Daisy DeSimone, who has a developmental disability, said her 30-year-old daughter was embroiled in a Republican recurring donation vortex last year that involved hundreds of small donations totaling $ 2,700 from of which about 85 percent went to two Trump committees.
In a joint interview with her mother, Daisy said that she had done more than she had intended, “by far” and felt “frustrated” by the experience. She was most passionate about the overwhelming amount of inquiries: “They kept coming back to me, they kept sending me emails and text messages.”
When her mother logged into her account to delete her from various lists, she found that the link to unsubscribe from the Republican National Committee was in plain text. Unlike any other link, it wasn’t bold, blue, or underlined. You had to move your mouse over it to see that it was a link at all.
“Shameful!” She thought. Initially, she blamed her daughter for the flood of donations. Now she sees her as a victim.
“A Problem of Systematic Abuse of Campaign Funding”
Overall, Republican campaigns issued far higher refunds (7.4 percent of WinRed posts) than Democratic ones (2.3 percent on ActBlue) in the 2020 election, a loophole primarily caused by Mr Trump’s pre-checked boxing system .
But some Democratic donors felt bullied.
Susan Kraus is an 81-year-old New Yorker who made about 175 separate donations through ActBlue last year totaling approximately $ 4,500, according to federal records.
“That is impossible,” said Ms. Kraus in an interview. “Never. I don’t know how that happened. But I didn’t.” Both she and her son Brett Graham said she had short-term memory loss.
“It’s almost like they’re duplicating it,” she said. “As if there were tricks.” She remembers donating using her phone, but nothing of that magnitude, nor the group of groups she was recorded to contribute to.
“There’s no nice way to turn it,” said Mr. Graham, who helps manage his mother’s financial affairs. “This is a systemic abuse of campaign finance.” He added that the overlapping pattern of giving “is not what a person would do”. He has received refunds of approximately $ 2,500 from two credit cards.
Most of Ms. Kraus’ donations went to two related groups, Stop Republicans and the Progressive Turnout Project, that she had never heard of. Both organizations share a Washington-based digital consulting firm, Mothership Strategies, which has been singled out by Democratic critics for his aggressive tactics.
Of the 10 Democratic groups with the oldest median age for refunded donors in California during the last election that refunded at least $ 75,000, all were Mothership customers.
These groups had an average age range of 74 to 78 years, as the analysis of the reimbursement data shows. (WinRed does not list which campaigns give refunds to certain donors, so an equivalent check is not possible.)
More than 40 percent of Stop Republicans and the Progressive Turnout Project’s Facebook ads reached users over 65, according to a public database compiled by Bully Pulpit Interactive, a democratic digital consultancy. In comparison, the Biden campaign dedicated 18.5 percent of its Facebook ads to this target group.
Mothership said it doesn’t target people based on age. Instead, it is sorted by interests and likelihood of donation – and that older people are simply more reliable donors.
“We pride ourselves on raising the funds that will enable our clients to outperform Republican Super PACs and vote for progressive and diverse Democrats across the country,” Maya Garcia, a director at Mothership, said in a statement. She added that the company’s executives “never want anyone to contribute inadvertently,” that the names of their organizations are prominently displayed, and that they “work to ensure that all refund requests are processed quickly”.
The company didn’t want to say if it was receiving a commission for the money it raised online. The Washington Post reported in 2019 that his commission was up to 15 percent.
A Democratic Debate About Tactics
Today, most of the leading Republican groups use pre-screened recurring boxes and other aggressive tactics, but a debate rages in Democratic circles over the ethics of online inquiries. There are two clear camps: those who have risen through the Democratic Congress campaign committee, the House of Representatives fundraising arm and its extremely aggressive program, including Mothership Strategies, and those more tied to Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns.
The operation of the D.C.C.C. is one of the few democratic groups that continues to use the pre-ticked boxes. It has also experimented with a different processing platform while ActBlue tries to completely block the practice. In June there was a call for donations from a sender listed as “SOCIAL SECURITY UPDATE (via DCCC)” – but on platforms such as Gmail, the D.C.C.C. Part was cut off unless people clicked through.
Murshed Zaheed, a veteran Democratic digital consultant, is one of those pushing for what he calls “ethical email,” which he defined as non-deceptive supporters.
“I can’t tell you how much I hate the words ’email list’,” he said. He said the phrase “dehumanizes” people and treats them “as A.T.M. Machinery.”
For Mr. Vaughan, the former NASA scientist, his final credit card statement was a maze of repeated charges from the same campaigns, sometimes on the same day.
The note his son discovered contained the words “WinRed fees must be refunded”. It was dated November 25 – the same day federal records show that $ 1,144 was refunded.
It was only about 10 percent of his total donation. His son couldn’t get the rest back.
Rachel Shorey contributed to the research.