A phony political action committee spent months falsely soliciting donations for volunteer firefighters in Montgomery County, funneling the money to at least half a dozen telemarketing firms.
But the county’s Office of Consumer Protection announced Monday that it caught the perpetrators and reached a civil settlement with them — an uncommon outcome in the evolving world of telemarketing fraud.
“It’s pretty rare to catch telemarketers,” Eric Friedman, the director of the office, said in a phone interview on Monday. “We think it’s a big news story because even though this happened in Montgomery County, it illustrates a nationwide problem where fake PACs are engaging in fake marketing for fake charities.”
Matthew Greenlee and Zachary Bass — the director and treasurer, respectively, of Heroes United PAC, a committee registered with the Federal Election Commission in 2017 — agreed in late October to immediately cease and desist from soliciting Montgomery County residents.
As part of the settlement, both agreed to write to every donor in the county and offer full refunds for their contributions, Friedman said.
The office has been investigating Heroes United since late July.
Operating as the “Volunteer Firefighters Association,” the organization made spam calls in Montgomery County and across the country, collecting more than $6 million in 2018 and 2019. Ninety percent of the fundraising was directed back to six different telemarketing firms making calls on behalf of the PAC.
In Montgomery County, telemarketers often claimed to be collecting money for specific local groups.
One resident emailed the Office of Consumer Protection after a caller requested a donation for volunteer firefighters in Rockville, Friedman said. But when the resident checked the official website for the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department, she saw that it didn’t solicit donations by phone.
When callers agreed to donate, telemarketers sent a letter to their home and asked them to mail contributions to what appeared to be a local address. One of the Montgomery County locations was listed as 451 Hungerford Drive, a P.O. box right across the street from the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department, Friedman said.
“It was specifically designed to be deceptive,” he continued. “One of the consumers who reported a call was actually a volunteer firefighter with the department.”
Telemarketers disguised their phone numbers as local area codes to appear more convincing— a practice known as spoofing.
“We found out that one of the telemarketing firms — the one that rented the mail drop in Rockville — is actually based in New Hampshire,” Friedman said. “It’s particularly despicable because they’re pretending to be connected to local firefighters, the very people who protect us.”
The office spent months sifting through FEC filings and tracking down the organizers of the PAC. Heroes United had also reached a settlement with the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office for violating the state’s robocall law, which bans prerecorded phone messages, Friedman said.
Bass, who registered the committee in 2017, has listed several other PACs with the FEC, including the Association of Police and First Responders, the United Police Officers Association, the American Coalition for Injured Veterans, and the Breast Cancer Health Council.
The county’s Office of Consumer Protection has alerted FEC and asked it to investigate the committees, Friedman said.
While fake PACs receive relatively little media attention, they’re a growing problem in the world of consumer protection, Friedman said.
It used to be more common for fraudsters to create fake nonprofits to solicit donations from unwitting customers. But after successful public information campaigns by consumer groups across the country, most people know to research charities on reputable sites online, or, in Maryland, to check if they’re registered with the secretary of state in Annapolis.
It’s much easier to register a PAC with the FEC, which requires minimal paperwork, Friedman said.
Heroes United, which appears in the commission’s official database, is registered as a super PAC, allowing it to raise unlimited funding to independently promote political campaigns. More than 100 people donated to Heroes United, according to the committee’s FEC filings, from TV producers to retirees.
“All you have to do is check a few boxes,” Friedman said. “And there appears to be very little vetting as to whether it’s a real organization connected to real causes.”
The best way for consumers to protect themselves against scams is not to trust numbers that aren’t on their contact lists. The office also listed other tips for telemarketing calls, including:
• Do not be fooled by the name of an organization. It is easy for scammers to use deceptive names that sound like they are a charity or are affiliated with firefighters, police, or first responders.
• Research the organization. Avoid donating money to organizations that do not use most of the donation for the cause you wish to support. Resource information is provided by an organization called Charity Navigator, at https://www.charitynavigator.org/.
• Ask for written information about the charity, including the name, address and telephone number. A legitimate charity or fundraiser will give out information about the charity’s mission, how donations will be used and proof that contributions may be tax-deductible.
• Be skeptical if someone thanks you for a pledge you do not remember making. If you have any doubts about whether you previously made a pledge or previously contributed, check your records. Be on the alert for invoices claiming you have made a pledge. Some unscrupulous solicitors use this approach to get your money by asking you to back that pledge with the actual donation—except no pledge existed.
For additional information about this or other scams, and to file complaints, contact the County Office of Consumer Protection at ConsumerProtection@MontgomeryCountyMD.gov or 240-777-3636.