Use caution when making political donations with credit cards
Tips for avoiding 'politicons'
By Michelle Crouch
This election season, it's easier than ever to use your
credit card to give to your favorite candidate or cause. But don't let the bunting and balloons dull your senses. Take appropriate precautions or your credit can fall in value faster than last year's campaign promise.
The Better Business Bureau on Aug. 14 issued a special warning that election-season scams have blossomed. Among the scams making the rounds as the political season heats up are:
Why we fall for politicons
- Calls promising that you'll win a free cruise for taking part in a political survey. Feel as you will about Obamacare; there's no such thing as an Obamacruise.
- Likewise, neither the president nor any other politician is going to pay your utility bill. That's just so much hot air, and is not likely to cool you off during the summer.
- Come-ons for legit sounding, but phony, campaign organizations. "If you aren't sure, don't donate over the phone," the BBB says. "If you'd like to
contribute to a political campaign or party, locate contact information
yourself rather than giving out financial information to a caller."
Experts warn you're particularly vulnerable to having your card information stolen and your
identity hijacked by political donations because:
- You're emotional. Your passion for a cause could allow you to let your guard down.
- New technology has made giving political donations by credit cards an any time, anywhere activity for the campaigns.
- A campaign has one overwhelming focus -- winning. Credit card security is at best one of many secondary concerns.
- The same old crooks are out there, looking for weak spots where they can dip their sticky fingers.
You can go to your candidate's website, of course, and use
your card to make an easy point-and-click donation. Or in the latest twist, a
growing number of campaigns -- including those of President Barack Obama and
Mitt Romney -- are using mobile card reading devices that can take your
donation instantly on the spot with a smartphone.
That means no more fumbling for cash at a political rally or
having to find the checkbook and a stamp when the giving mood strikes. Sound
convenient? Absolutely. That's probably why more people than ever are using plastic
for political donations.
Card-giving carries risk
But before you hit that "Donate now" button or hand your Visa
to a campaign worker equipped with an iPhone and a credit card dongle, remember that giving with a
credit card does carry risks.
"Campaigns are typically being run on shoestring budgets, and they all want
to spend as much money as possible on advertising," says David J. Shannon, a
Philadelphia-based data-security lawyer. "So you have to wonder, are they
spending the money to hire experienced IT consultants to make sure they have
adequate security? Or are these sites being set up by young, idealistic
volunteers who might not know what they're doing?"
A May 2012 Washington Times story underscored the
concern. The newspaper found that a super PAC (political action committee) that
raised more than $50 million for Mitt Romney, Restore Our Future, was using an online donation system that
lacked the most basic security measures, exposing credit card data to pretty much
Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said she wasn't surprised
to hear about the security breach. "Super PACs are sloppy because they don't
expect to be getting a lot of small donations online," she said. "They set up
these websites to give the illusion that this is some kind of grassroots thing,
but what they're really expecting is million-dollar checks."
Tips for making a safe credit card contribution
look for "https" in the Web address of the donation page. The "s" is a sign that the site is using
an encrypted connection. A security label, such as VeriSign or Cybertrust, is also a good sign (but no guarantee).
contact information. Ideally, you want more than just an email address to
contact if you have problems. Look for a phone number and a U.S. address.
secure home computer. Never enter your credit card number when you're using
a public Wi-Fi connection, and make sure your home connection is secured.
Always download the updates for your computer's operating system and its antivirus and antispyware
click on links in emails. To avoid phishing scams, if you get an email from
a candidate or political group that you want to support, always type the name
of the group into your browser rather than clicking on the link and donate
directly from the candidate's or group's web site.
credit card, not debit card. If your card number is stolen, you don't want money coming directly out of your checking account. Federal law provides
more protection to credit card users if a dispute arises.
they plan to use your information.
ID before making a mobile device donation. Mobile card reader technology is
generally secure, but make sure the person taking your card really works for
the stated candidate or cause. Don't let your card leave your sight.
She believes most politicians, at least at the national
level, take appropriate steps to make sure their sites are secure, if only because
they don't want the negative press if the data does get stolen.
Tom Lee, a software developer at the Sunlight Foundation,
which studies money in politics, says political donors who want to use a credit
card should take the same steps experts advise when shopping online, such as
looking for "https" in the browser and using a secure connection.
says Lee, who has experience setting up donation websites. Often, political
groups sell or give contact information to other candidates or groups, and you
could end up with a flood of solicitations. Also, remember that if you give
more than $200 to any candidate, your name will go into a federal database
where anyone can see it, including your nosy neighbors.
Lee says mobile card reader technology is extremely secure,
so it's most important to make sure the campaign worker who scans your credit
card is legitimate. "It's just like when you hand your card to server in a
restaurant," he says. "It's probably fine, but you're playing the odds to some
Even if you donate on a secure site or mobile device, Lee
and Shannon note that there's a chance your data could be compromised later. "Unlike
a retail store, campaigns are temporary by design, and a lot of them will shut
down by January 2013," Shannon says. "You can't know what will happen to the
data at that point, or if they're properly handling it."
Contributions eaten by fees
Once you're confident a site is secure, there's one more fact
to consider when giving with a credit card: part of your donation will go to pay
a processing fee, so your candidate or cause won't get as much as they would if
you paid with a check, says Beth Robertson, director of payments research for
consulting firm Javelin Strategy & Research.
The processing fees, which are routine for all credit card
transactions, usually range from 1 percent to 4 percent. Candidates generally
don't mind paying those fees, Robertson says, because research suggests that
people generally give more when they donate with a credit card.
In June 2012, with the Square devices deployed, the candidates racked up serious credit card swipe fees -- $480,000 by Obama's campaign, $37,000 by Romney's.
Write a check instead?
In Shannon's opinion, writing a check to a candidate is the
smarter move. "Donors should think about what they're risking for convenience,"
he says. "It's much safer to write a check and mail it in. Plus, the candidate
will get more of your donation because there's no processing fee."
Barry Maher, a writer and speaker in Corona, Calif., who has
made many political donations via credit card, says he knows he's taking a
small chance, but it's worth it.
"I used to get a lot of political mailers, and they would
just pile up," he says. "Now, I get emails from various campaigns and if it's someone
I want to give money to, I just click and give that way. I think I give more
now that I'm able to do with credit card because it's just so easy."
Maher says he's confident in his computer's security
software and notes that using the mail has risks, too. "Not long ago there was
a mail theft ring out here and someone got hold of one of my bank statements," he
says. "I had to freeze all my bank accounts, and it was a big hassle. So you're
taking a chance no matter what you do."
See related: 8 tips to keep your cards safe while shopping online
Updated: August 17, 2012