When MaryAnn Nellis tried to pay for groceries on April 14, her credit card was declined. Later, she said, she found out why: Her credit card company, Capital One, had flagged an earlier purchase as potentially fraudulent. The problem? A $5 donation to Friends of Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor’s campaign committee, Nellis said. Nellis told a Capital One representative she had not made the donation to Walker, who is fighting an effort to recall him as governor in a closely watched, expensive election set for June 5. “Over my dead body,” said Nellis, a potter and retired teacher in upstate New York who describes herself as “adamantly angry and upset” at Republicans such as Walker. Nellis disputed the charge and she was issued a new card. Though the amount of money was small, ProPublica decided Nellis’ complaint was worth following up. There have been other reports recently about insecure campaign-donation websites and the potential for fraud. Earlier this month, The Washington Times reported that Restore Our Future, the super PAC supporting Republican Mitt Romney, was using a collection system that made online donors’ credit card informationaccessible to even amateur snoopers.
At ProPublica’s request, Nellis called Capital One and asked a representative about the $5 charge to Friends of Scott Walker. “She told me that they watch for fraudulent merchants who will put through a bunch of charges that are not legitimate,” Nellis said. “I said, ‘The fraudulent merchant here was Friends of Scott Walker, right?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ They had a little flag on any Scott Walker activity.”
As an experiment, a ProPublica employee also made a $5 donation to Friends of Scott Walker on her Capital One card on May 10. Almost immediately, Walker’s campaign sent an email thanking her. Less than a minute after that, Capital One emailed a fraud protection alert, saying the company “noticed potentially suspicious activity” on her account and asking her to call fraud protection as soon as possible.