Montgomery Co. gets residents donation refunds after misleading calls

Some Montgomery County, Maryland, residents will be getting their money back after making donations to telemarketers who authorities say weren’t being clear where the money was going.

The county’s Office of Consumer Protection announced a settlement Monday with a political action committee “engaged in deceptive telemarketing regarding alleged donation to local volunteer firefighters.”

Quoting records maintained by the Federal Election Commission, more than 90% of the donations that Heroes United PAC received from consumers were kept by third-party vendors paid by the PAC to do the telemarketing solicitations, according to an Office of Consumer Protection statement. The office also said that less than 10% of the contributions from consumers was used for any so-called political action.

As part of the settlement signed by Matthew Greenlee and Zachary Bass, Heroes United PAC will write and offer full refunds to all consumers who have made donations to the group in Montgomery County since 2017.

“The letters have already started to go out,” said Eric Friedman, director of the county’s Office of Consumer Protection. “It’s incredibly satisfying. It took a lot of legwork.”

Heroes United PAC, doing business as “Volunteer Firefighters Association,” reported collecting $4.6 million nationwide in 2018, according to the Federal Election Commission records. Already in 2019, it has collected $1.7 million.

The group used local mail drops and spoofed caller IDs, Friedman said, to make it seem as if it was working locally.

“It really is a terrible way to exploit our natural desire to support those who risk their lives to protect us,” Friedman said.

His office has asked the Federal Election Commission to investigate Heroes United PAC and several other PACs registered by Bass that are doing business as “Association of Police and First Responders,” “United Police Officers Association,” “American Coalition for Injured Veterans,” “Breast Cancer Health Council” and “United Police Officers Association.”

“This is a national story and we just caught a piece of it in Montgomery County,” Friedman said. “We’re very happy that in this case, we spent a lot of time, but we did come up with the information that we hope will trigger national attention to this serious problem.”

Montgomery County’s Office of Consumer Protection has these suggestions to ensure your money goes to the cause you want to support:

  • Don’t be fooled by the name of an organization. Some do business using deceptive names that make them sound like they’re a charity or are affiliated with police, firefighters or first responders.
  • Be on the alert for invoices claiming you made a pledge. Beware calls or mail asking you for an actual donation to follow through with a pledge you don’t remember making. If you have doubts, check your records.
  • Consult with the group Charity Navigator, which can help you research an organization.
  • Avoid donating money to “middlemen” organizations that don’t use most of the donation for the actual cause you want to support.
  • Ask for written information on the charity’s name, address and telephone number. A legitimate charity or fundraiser is happy not only to share proof that contributions may be tax-deductible but also to share information about the group’s mission and how donations are used.
  • Don’t assume that Caller-ID information displayed on your phone is correct. It is easy for callers to make it appear as if a call is coming from a local telephone number or from a specific organization.

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