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Older Americans, a critical source of political donations, often fall victim to aggressive and misleading digital practices. A broad Times analysis points to the scope of the problem.
June 26, 2021Updated 11:46 a.m. ET
William W. Vaughan Jr. was a senior atmospheric scientist at NASA during the space race and later an accomplished academic, but as with so many aging Americans, time and technology had sapped him of some of his savvy, especially online.
Computers made him feel “like a duck out of water,” his son Steve Vaughan said. So when Steve was sorting through the elder Mr. Vaughan’s papers after his death at 90 in December, he was unsettled by what he found on his father’s final credit card bill.
The first item was familiar: $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, was to the firm that processes online Republican campaign contributions, WinRed. Over four months last year, Mr. Vaughan had made 400 donations totaling nearly $11,500 — to Donald J. Trump, Mitch McConnell, Tim Scott, Steve Scalise and many others.
The sum was far beyond the realm of his financial ability, his son said, and sure enough, he soon discovered handwritten notes outlining what appeared to be his father’s call disputing the charges with his credit card company. He is still seething at the avalanche of charges and “what they did to a 90-year-old” just before his death.
“If it happened to him,” he said, “I have to figure it happened to other people.”
The dirty little secret of online political fund-raising is that the most aggressive and pernicious practices that campaigns use to raise money are especially likely to ensnare unsuspecting older people, according to interviews with digital strategists and an examination of federal donation and refund data.
Older Americans are critical campaign contributors, both online and offline. More than half of all the online contributions processed by WinRed in the last cycle, 56 percent, came from people who listed their occupation as “retired,” federal records show.
Digital operatives in both parties deploy an array of manipulative tactics that can deceive donors of all age groups: faux bill notices and official-looking correspondence; bogus offers to match donations and hidden links to unsubscribe; and prechecked boxes that automatically repeat donations, which are widely seen as the most egregious scheme.
But some groups appear to specifically target older internet users, blasting out messages with subject lines like “Social Security” that have particular resonance for older people, and spending disproportionately on ads for an older audience. In many cases, the most unscrupulous tactics of direct mail have simply been rebooted for the digital age — with ruthless new precision.
“Everybody knows what they’re doing: They’re scamming seniors to line their own pockets and to raise money for campaigns,” said Mike Nellis, a Democratic digital strategist who is critical of deceptive practices.
“You are targeting people who are less savvy online, who are more likely to believe what’s put in front of them,” Mr. Nellis said, lamenting tactics that “erase people’s humanity.”
It is impossible to tell just how many older Americans are deceived by such methods, because age is not reported on federal filings. One useful measuring stick, digital experts say, is the number of donations that are refunded — which often occurs when contributors feel unsatisfied or duped.
The New York Times analyzed refund data from 2020, working with the political information firm Political Data Inc., which matched refunded donors to the voter rolls. The results provide a rare window into just how disproportionately old the universe of donors who receive refunds is.
The findings, which looked at refunds in one large and diverse state, California, showed that the average age of donors who received refunds was almost 66 on WinRed and nearly 65 on ActBlue, the equivalent Democratic processing site.
Even more revealing: More than four times as much money was refunded to donors who are 70 and older than to adults under the age of 50 — for both Republicans and Democrats.
More than 65,000 unique donors, who were refunded a roughly $25 million combined last election, were matched by name and ZIP code in California. The ages of donors being refunded in both parties were very similar, even as Republican campaigns issued online refunds at more than triple the overall rate of Democrats, records show.
A Times investigation earlier this year revealed how the Trump operation had made donations automatically recur weekly, and had obscured that fact with extraneous text, causing a multimillion-dollar cascade of refunds and a surge of fraud complaints.
Multiple banking officials said the flood of complaints against Mr. Trump’s operation came heavily from older donors. One fraud investigator recalled the case of an 88-year-old who worried that her family would presume she was developing dementia because the repeat charges had blown past her credit card limit.
Exploiting the diminishing capacity of older people for cash extends far beyond politics. There is an entire initiative at the Justice Department devoted to elder abuse, and the F.B.I.’s Internet Crime Complaint Center reported nearly $1 billion in losses for those 60 and older in 2020.
Most political tactics are legal, though the Justice Department recently called out nonexistent promises to match donations as an example of “material misrepresentations.”
“You leverage data, technology, emotion and digital tactics to take advantage of a population,” said Cyrus Krohn, who oversaw digital strategy at 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 target’
Daniel Marson, a clinical neuropsychologist who has studied financial decision-making among aging Americans, said older people face a double whammy online when combining their generational lack of familiarity with technology and age-related cognitive declines.
The brain itself starts to shift with age, Dr. Marson and other neurological experts said. Processing typically begins to slow. Keeping track of multiple things is harder. Evaluating trustworthiness becomes more of a struggle.
“They just don’t have the same digital literacy or capacity to engage in an internet world,” said Dr. Marson, the former director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Certainly, millions of aging Americans are still adroit with technology and some don’t decline cognitively until a very advanced age.
But even the kinds of silly deceptions that millennials and digital natives might roll their eyes at — 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 like “Final Notice #33716980” — which the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently deployed — that can make it appear as if actual bills are at risk of defaulting. Some use breathless exaggerations, like a recent text from the House Republican campaign arm, which warned it would “lose the House for good!” if everyone did not contribute $9 by midnight.
Many older people interpret personalized messages literally.
Tatenda Musapatike, a Democratic digital strategist, recalled having to explain to some older family members that Joe Biden was not in fact the person sending them an email asking for money.
“It’s not naïve or foolish,” she said. “It’s from people being less online.”
The daughter of one 69-year-old donor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to safeguard her father’s wishes to remain private, described a call from her mother last year asking her to intervene in his excessive online contributions. “Mom came to me and said, ‘Dad donated $25,000,’” the woman said. Records show he made hundreds of donations via WinRed to a variety of Republican campaigns.
“He’s taking what they say as truth,” she said, adding that he has begun exhibiting early symptoms of mental decline and insists he has not donated as much as he actually has.
While she has unsubscribed him from as many email and text lists as she can, she remains worried. “I can’t watch him 24 hours a day,” she said.
David Laibson, a behavioral economics professor at Harvard who has studied the impact of aging on financial decision-making, said studies showed that half of people in their 80s or older have either some cognitive impairment short of dementia or actual dementia.
“Who’s the perfect target?” he said. “They’re in their early 80s, they have a very substantial likelihood of cognitive impairment, and they probably still haven’t depleted their retirement nest egg.”
In fact, the records show that more money was refunded to donors who were 80 and older than to adults under 50, on both ActBlue and WinRed, according to the examination of California refund data.
ActBlue and WinRed both said they work with customers to solve any problems they encounter, but declined to comment further.
Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, the chairwoman of the Rules Committee, which oversees federal elections administration, noted that many older Americans were particularly isolated during the coronavirus pandemic, and were simultaneously forced to be online more to connect with family and friends. “They had no choice,” she said, “so it is really easy to target them.”
Ms. Klobuchar, a Democrat, recently introduced legislation to ban prechecked boxes that repeat donations after the Federal Election Commission unanimously recommended outlawing the practice in the wake of the Times investigation.
“Politicians are always courting the votes of seniors,” she said. “Then, behind their backs, they’re scamming them for money. It’s pretty bad.”
Some younger donors who are less internet-savvy 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 entrapped in a Republican recurring donation vortex last year that involved hundreds of small contributions totaling $2,700, about 85 percent of which went to two Trump committees.
In a joint interview with her mother, Daisy said she contributed more than she intended, “by a lot,” and felt “frustrated” by her experience. She was most impassioned about the overwhelming volume of solicitations: “They would keep coming back to me, they would keep emailing me and texting me.”
When her mother logged into her account to try to delete her from various lists, she discovered that the “unsubscribe” link from the Republican National Committee was in plain text. Unlike every other link, it was neither bold nor blue nor underlined. You had to hover above to see that it was a link at all.
“Shameful!” she thought. At first, she had blamed her daughter for the deluge of donations. Now she sees her as a victim.
‘A systemic campaign finance abuse issue’
Overall, Republican campaigns issued refunds at far higher rates (7.4 percent of WinRed contributions) than Democratic ones (2.3 percent on ActBlue) in the 2020 election, a gap driven chiefly by Mr. Trump’s prechecked boxes scheme.
But some Democratic donors did feel victimized.
Susan Kraus is an 81-year-old New Yorker who, federal records show, made around 175 separate donations last year via ActBlue, totaling about $4,500.
“That’s impossible,” Ms. Kraus said in an interview. “Never. I don’t know how that happened. But it wasn’t me doing it.” Both she and her son, Brett Graham, said she experiences short-term memory loss.
“It’s almost like they were duplicating it,” she said. “Like there were tricks.” She recalls making donations with her phone but nothing at that scale, nor to the range of groups that records show she contributed to.
“There isn’t a nice way to spin it,” said Mr. Graham, who helps manage his mother’s financial affairs. “This is a systemic campaign finance abuse issue.” He added that the overlapping pattern of giving was “not what a human being would do.” He was able to receive refunds for roughly $2,500 from two credit cards.
The largest share of Ms. Kraus’s donations went to two interconnected groups, Stop Republicans and the Progressive Turnout Project, that she said she had never heard of. Both organizations share a Washington-based digital consulting firm, Mothership Strategies, that Democratic critics have singled out for its aggressive tactics.
Of the top 10 Democratic groups with the oldest average age for refunded donors in California during the last election that refunded at least $75,000, all were Mothership clients.
Those groups had an average age range of 74 to 78, the analysis of refund data shows. (WinRed does not itemize which campaigns provide refunds to particular donors, so an equivalent examination is not possible.)
More than 40 percent of Facebook ads from Stop Republicans and the Progressive Turnout Project reached users over 65, according to a public database compiled by Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic digital consultancy. In comparison, the Biden campaign devoted 18.5 percent of its Facebook ads to that demographic.
Mothership said that it does not target people by age. Instead, it said, it screens based on interests and likelihood to donate — and that older people are simply more reliable donors.
“We’re proud to raise the funds that allow our clients to outcompete Republican super PACs and elect progressive and diverse Democrats across the country,” Maya Garcia, a principal at Mothership, said in a statement. She added that the leaders of the firm “never want anyone to make an accidental contribution,” that it displays its organizations’ names prominently and that it works “to ensure all refund requests are handled quickly.”
The company declined to say if it receives a commission on money it raises online. The Washington Post reported in 2019 that its commission was as high as 15 percent.
A debate among Democrats on tactics
Today, most leading Republican groups deploy prechecked recurring boxes and other aggressive tactics, but in Democratic circles a debate is raging about the ethics of online solicitations. There are two clear camps: those who rose through the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s House fund-raising arm, and its highly aggressive program, including Mothership Strategies, and those more aligned with the presidential campaigns of Senator Bernie Sanders.
The D.C.C.C.’s operation is one of the few Democratic groups that continue to use the prechecked boxes. It has also experimented with another processing platform while ActBlue moves to block the practice entirely. In June, one fund-raising pitch came from a sender listed as “SOCIAL SECURITY UPDATE (via DCCC)” — though on platforms like Gmail, the D.C.C.C. part was cut off unless people clicked through.
Murshed Zaheed, a veteran Democratic digital consultant, is among those pushing for what he calls “ethical email,” which he defined as not deceiving supporters.
“I cannot 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. machines.”
For Mr. Vaughan, the former NASA scientist, his final credit card bill was a maze of repeating charges to the same campaigns, sometimes on the same day.
The note his son discovered had the words “WinRed charges to be refunded” written clearly. It was dated Nov. 25 — the same day that federal records show $1,144 was refunded.
It was only about 10 percent of his total giving. His son has been unable to recoup the rest.
Rachel Shorey contributed research.