Editorial Policy

Election Season Scams: No, Obama Won’t be Paying Your Utility Bill

Marcia Frellick

August 21, 2012

As election season kicks into high gear, scammers will be among those counting on your support.

Don’t be fooled: Despite the pitches you may have been getting, President Obama will not be paying any or your electric bill, and you won’t win a trip to the tropics for participating in an election survey.

The Better Business Bureau says these two scams are among the latest. In the Obama scenario, thieves use fliers, social media and texts and even go door-to-door to tell people the president is offering to help pay Americans’ utility bills. All they need are the consumers’ Social Security and bank routing numbers to arrange payments, they claim. In return, customers are given a phony bank routing number that will supposedly pay their bills. But, of course, the customer gets nothing, except increased vulnerability to identity theft.

As for the free vacation scam, variations go something like this: You get a public opinion poll robocall recording announcing a “free cruise” in exchange for participating in a telephone survey. At the end of the call, you’re asked for your debit or credit card number to cover “port fees” and taxes. Not a chance: Legitimate election pollers don’t give prizes.

And don’t rely on a call-back number to screen crooks. Sure, you can ask a caller for a number so you can call back and see who answers the phone. But you don’t really know who’s on the other end of the call when you call back. Don’t rely on this double-check.

Tips for protecting your donations, identity
So how can you safely support your favorite candidate? Many people calling you or asking to swipe your card at official political fundraising events are going to be legitimate. Campaigns make sure of that. You can imagine the damage to a candidate if solicitation fraud was discovered. Here are some tips for safe donations during election season:

  • Consider writing a check and mailing it. Checks are safe and traceable, and the candidate actually gets the entire amount you donated rather than having to subtract a credit card processing fee (typically 1 to 4 percent).
  • Donate on your candidate’s website. Typing in the website address yourself, rather than responding to an email, is a surer bet to make sure the site is secure. Check that the website address (URL) starts with “https” (the “s” indicates it’s secure).
  • Never give out bank information. Anyone asking you for bank account numbers or credit card information to prove your identity for voting purposes is scamming you. States have different requirements for confirming identity, but none of them will ask for this information.
  •  Take an extra step with mobile payments. This method of collecting donations is big this year, with nonprofits and campaign fundraisers alike making use of smartphone card-reader plugins, such as Square and PayPal Here. While mobile payments are generally secure, make sure the person asking you to make the payment is legit. Ask for ID or official campaign credentials if there’s doubt.

Use credit rather than debit. Federal protections are stronger for credit cards than for debit cards if there’s a dispute or if your card number is stolen.