CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated how CAPE PAC sites are identified. Candidate sites are labeled as CAPE PAC sites in fine print at the top and bottom of each site. “Also, Sen. Scott Brown paid a fine to honor his pledge to keep outside money out of Massachusetts, not for breaking the pledge.”
Noam Neusner, a former White House speechwriter for President George W. Bush, thought he had given $250 to Ohio GOP Senate candidate Josh Mandel.
Instead, Neusner was one of nearly 3,000 donors who stumbled onto a network of look-alike campaign websites that have netted more than $570,000 this year in what some are calling a sophisticated political phishing scheme.
The websites have the trappings of official campaign pages: smiling candidate photos and videos, issue pages, and a large, red “donate” button at the top. Except that proceeds from the shadow sites go not to the candidates pictured, but to an obscure conservative group run by an Arizona activist.
Such doppelgänger sites exist for nearly three-dozen prominent GOP figures, including presidential nominee Mitt Romney, House Speaker John Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and donation magnets such as Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Allen West of Florida.
Peter Pasi, who specializes in digital GOP fundraising, said the group is “exploiting donors.” “The intent is to trade on someone else’s name for your benefit,” he said.
Republican officials are concerned that the group, the Coalition of Americans for Political Equality PAC, is siphoning away money from needy GOP candidates while duping donors.
“The only thing they are doing is lining their pockets and funding their own operation,” said Chris LaCivita, a strategist for West, whose campaign lawyers recently filed a complaint against CAPE PAC with the Federal Election Commission.
(PICTURES: Compare The Clone Sites vs. The Official Sites)
A critical unanswered question is who, if anyone, is profiting from the enterprise. More than $250,000 of the group’s spending—nearly half—has gone to two companies with limited paper trails, neither of which has been hired by any other federal campaign in the last two years, federal records show.
CAPE PAC Chairman Jeff Loyd, a former county GOP chairman in Arizona, declined an interview about the group. He said in an e-mailed statement: “Our candidate websites, videos, and get-out-the-vote messages clearly state who we are and our mission.”
“If a donor inadvertently gives to CAPE PAC and requests a refund, we immediately comply,” Loyd said. “These instances have been few and far between ... [we] are unaware of any issue that remains unresolved.”
CAPE PAC’s model is to buy Google ads—about $290,000 worth, as of the end of June—to promote its network of candidate sites whenever people search for prominent GOP officials. A search for “Mitt Romney,” for instance, often leads to two sponsored results: Romney’s official site and CAPE PAC’s mittromneyin2012.com.
Once on a CAPE PAC site, users would have to notice fine print at either the top or bottom of the page revealing that they were not on the official page of their favored politician. A dozen donors, including some experienced Washington hands such as Neusner, had no idea they had contributed to the group before National Journal Daily contacted them.
“Clearly, it’s deceptive and it’s wrong and it’s hurting good, Republican conservative candidates,” Neusner said. He has since asked for a refund, which he said the group is processing.
It is impossible to tell how many of the almost 3,000 people who have given to CAPE PAC have done so mistakenly. CAPE PAC said it has a “100 percent refund policy” when donors ask; it issued more than $50,000 in refunds in the second quarter.
“I’ve been swindled,” said one D.C. veteran, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the donor’s job includes directing campaign contributions. “I was under the impression that I was giving to the Romney campaign. I’m certainly going to be asking for my money back.”
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The donor noted that if seasoned political professionals are being fooled, then many more lay donors are likely giving in error.
“It confused me, and I do this for a living,” said Patrick Raffaniello, a Washington lobbyist with two decades’ experience whose bookkeeper gave $2,250 to CAPE PAC thinking it was going to Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan. Raffaniello thought his bookkeeper errantly gave to Camp’s PAC, not directly to his reelection campaign as Raffaniello had intended, and he sought a refund. He did not know until contacted by National Journal Daily where his money really went.
“That’s pretty sophisticated phishing,” he said. “It looks official. It looks as good as anything.... I’m glad I got my money back.”
CAPE PAC’s network of micro-sites does not appear to break election law; the group discloses itself as the operator on every page. But “just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right,” said Pasi.
The group first made waves in March, when it bought search ads for GOP Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts. Brown and his Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Warren, had pledged to swear off outside advertising. Warren said the CAPE PAC ads violated their agreement and Brown paid a fine for not honoring the pledge.