Over the weekend, The New York Times exposed a Trump campaign scam so simple and perfectly Trumpian that it’s actually a wonder the ex-president hasn’t (1) had the scheme trademarked (2) taken to Fox News to brag about what a genius he is for so thoroughly swindling his base. As Shane Goldmacher reports, Donald Trump’s campaign ripped off supporters for tens of millions of dollars by making it so that when they donated money, the default option authorized the campaign to transfer the pledged amount from people’s bank accounts not once but every single week. Later, the campaign introduced a second prechecked box that doubled a person’s contribution and was thus known internally as a “money bomb.” In order for people to have noticed this, they would have had to wade through “lines of text in bold and capital letters that overwhelmed the opt-out language.”
What exactly did those prechecked boxes look like?
Well, as the campaign’s finances worsened they became dizzyingly complex. Here is an example from October of the text a Trump donor would have to wade through — and uncheck — to not give multiple times.https://t.co/vu10yWJaEs pic.twitter.com/N3NdYSMYPH
— Shane Goldmacher (@ShaneGoldmacher) April 3, 2021
Among the many individuals who were bilked out of money they literally couldn‘t afford to part with was Stacy Blatt, who was living in hospice care and surviving on less than $1,000 a month. Blatt donated $500 intended as a single contribution and within 30 days discovered that the Trump campaign had withdrawn $3,000 from his account, leading his utility and rent payments to bounce. And Blatt, who died in February, obviously wasn’t the only one:
The tactic ensnared scores of unsuspecting Trump loyalists—retirees, military veterans, nurses, and even experienced political operatives. Soon, banks and credit card companies were inundated with fraud complaints from the president’s own supporters about donations they had not intended to make, sometimes for thousands of dollars. “Bandits!” said Victor Amelino, a 78-year-old Californian, who made a $990 online donation to Mr. Trump in early September via WinRed [the company that processed the campaign’s online donations]. It recurred seven more times—adding up to almost $8,000. “I’m retired. I can’t afford to pay all that damn money.”
The sheer magnitude of the money involved is staggering for politics. In the final two and a half months of 2020, the Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee, and their shared accounts issued more than 530,000 refunds worth $64.3 million to online donors. All campaigns make refunds for various reasons, including to people who give more than the legal limit. But the sum the Trump operation refunded dwarfed that of Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s campaign and his equivalent Democratic committees, which made 37,000 online refunds totaling $5.6 million in that time. The recurring donations swelled Mr. Trump’s treasury in September and October, just as his finances were deteriorating.
Oh, and the scheme didn’t stop after Trump lost the election. According to the Times, his campaign “continued the weekly withdrawals through prechecked boxes all the way through December 14 as he raised tens of millions of dollars for his new political action committee, Save America.” (Incidentally, Trump’s legal defense fund was its own kind of dishonest ploy, with the money going to the Save America super PAC, which he can tap to pay for all kinds of personal expenses.)
While marketers have used deceptive practices like prechecked boxes for years, experts say the scale upon which the Trump campaign duped people and was forced to issue refunds was unprecedented. “It’s unfair, it’s unethical, and it’s inappropriate,” Ira Rheingold, the executive director of the National Association of Consumer Advocates, told the Times. “It should be in textbooks of what you shouldn’t do,” said Harry Brignull, a UX designer who came up with the phrase “dark patterns” for manipulative digital-marketing practices.