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How to Spot and Avoid Vape Advocacy Scams

Danielle Jones
December 12, 2019

From the very beginning vapers have been a community of people passionate about saving our own lives—and the lives of others—from death and disease caused by smoking cigarettes. For most of us, existing cessation products had failed, and the promise of early e-cigarette products led to curiosity and excitement as we discovered and helped innovate and refine vaping technology.

We’re still passionate, but now our focus has shifted to recruiting new vapers, advocating for reasonable legislation, demanding fair treatment from the news media, and growing our circles of influence. But our passion can also, unfortunately, make us vulnerable to people who promise to help in the war against extinction-level regulations, but turn out to be predators.

We’ve seen it before in the form of politicians who promise to help but disappear with funds we raise, and fake FDA memos circulated to legitimize questionable advocacy strategies. The internet is where vaping started, and it’s the ideal place for the vape community to connect and spread information. But we have to remember that it also leaves us vulnerable to people who may try to use our natural trust in our fellow vaping advocates to scam us.

People who claim they’re the only ones who can accomplish something are probably lying.

In an effort to help vapers decide where best to direct their support, here is a guide to help identify sketchy behavior and questionable people. If you find a new advocacy organization or campaign online that is asking for money or personal information (which is often the primary target), here are some things to investigate that may allow you to spot warning signs and steer clear.

Check out their website

Any legitimate organization or campaign asking for money or personal information will have an official website. If they don’t, that’s your first red flag. When browsing their site, consider the following:

  • Does the website look professional?
  • Does the text contain a lot of typos or spelling mistakes?
  • Does the website have a Terms & Conditions page and/or a Privacy Policy? Links to these pages can usually be found at the bottom of a website, in the footer. Some states, like California, require a Privacy Policy by law
  • Does the site have an “About” page with specific details about who is in charge or organizational details? A website with no information about the creators or people involved should not be trusted
  • Does the site have contact information? Emails with the same domain as the website and telephone numbers are best. If the website only has a contact form it could still be legit, but proceed with caution. If there is no contact information, be cautious
  • Does the site have a mission statement or other page outlining its goals and the tactics used to accomplish them? Do they sound reasonable and achievable?
  • Does the site have links to its official social media channels, like a Facebook page, Twitter account, or Instagram? Scammers can easily make these too, so poke around on these channels and see if there are regular posts that engage the community and have a following

Are they real? Ask questions!

If you speak to someone in charge of the organization or campaign that’s asking for donations or for your personal information, ask good questions and carefully consider their answers:

  • Are they filing or have they filed for charitable tax status 501(c)(3) or community service 501(c)(4)? Most advocacy orgs are 501(c)(4) due to their involvement in politics. 501(c)(3) organizations are limited in how much lobbying they can do. Note: lobbying does not necessarily mean having a paid lobbyist. Lobbying is defined as any activity that attempts to influence government action
  • If they are collecting donations, do they have an IRS tax ID? Are they incorporated? If not yet, when?
  • Are they working with an attorney to set their organization up? If they claim to not need one, be cautious
  • What makes their organization or campaign different from established ones? Do they have a legitimate reason for existing?
  • How do they plan to engage their members or supporters, and what do they expect their supporters to do? Send emails, make calls, attend protests, etc.?
  • What tools and infrastructure do they have in place to help achieve their mission?

Donations 101

If an organization or campaign is asking for financial donations, you should be hyper vigilant in making sure they are legitimate, and not a scam. Not only can you waste money, but you could also become a victim of identity theft.

A legitimate organization will have its own business bank account and will take donations through professional services like PayPal or an e-commerce website. They will not use GoFundMe or other similar sites because those sites are designed for individuals who could not otherwise arrange donations, and therefore GoFundMe takes a large percentage of the money raised as payment.

Trustworthy organizations use official services that takes smaller fees, so they get the maximum amount of each donation. Registering for an e-commerce site or a service like PayPal requires some amount of professional legitimacy. GoFundMe does not—anyone can make one.

People who spread lies or start arguments in order to impress supporters are not the type of people you want to fight alongside.

Before making an online donation, there are a few more things to consider.

Are they using a secure service to process payment information? Services like PayPal, e-commerce platforms like Shopify, and credit card processors like Authorize.net are a few examples of established services with reputations for securely handling payments. Never enter your credit card information on a basic form or any website page that is not secure. Secure sites always begin with https. If there is no “s” it’s not secured by an SSL certificate.

Have they stated what they will use your donation for, or is there a set goal or amount of money they need to achieve this goal? Are you signing up for a one-time donation, or a recurring one? This information should be made very clear upfront.

Do they say whether your donation can be written off as a charitable tax deduction? These can only be made if the organization is a 510(c)(3). Businesses may be able to write off donations to a 501(c)(4) if they can justify it as a necessary cost of doing business, but individuals can’t.

Red flags and warning signs

If the people who created the organization or campaign aren’t well known and respected in the community themselves, it might indicate that the organizers lack the knowledge and network to complete their mission.

This doesn’t mean you have to be “vape famous” to be effective, it’s more about “stranger danger.” Ask other vaping people who you trust what they know about the organization and its leaders.

People who claim they’re the only ones who can accomplish something are probably lying. There are a lot of people on this earth, and chances are that many others are just as skilled or qualified. Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. People who lie about or exaggerate their qualifications are likely to be scam artists.

People who spread lies or start arguments in order to impress supporters are not the type of people you want to fight alongside. Frankly, they probably can’t get support any other way. Vape drama gets really old too. Watch out for people who try to make themselves look good by tearing down other (probably more established) vaping advocates. Why aren’t they secure enough to succeed without ruining others’ reputations?

A website with no information about the creators or people involved should not be trusted.

Gavin de Becker, a highly regarded security specialist who’s worked with the United States Supreme Court, Congress, the Department of Justice, and the Central Intelligence Agency, wrote the New York Times Bestseller, The Gift of Fear, which teaches readers to recognize warning signs of individuals who are looking to cause harm. Here are some of de Becker’s key warning signs that vapers can look for to avoid scammers:

  • Beware of “forced teaming.” This is a form of manipulation where the scammer will start saying things to you using “we” and “us” in an effort to forcibly include you in things you aren’t a part of. For example, if the scammer has a problem, they may ask you what “we” should do about it, even though it has nothing to do with you. Many people fall victim to forced teaming because it feels rude not to go along with it, and it creates the illusion that you’re a team
  • People who are too quick to share “secrets” with you, or offer too much information could be doing this with malicious intent. Scammers often overshare because they know they are lying to you, so they subconsciously overcompensate. People who tell the truth believe what they are saying, so they typically don’t feel a need to “convince” you
  • Be cautious of those who make “promises” to you, especially when you haven’t asked. Promising things is a telltale sign that a person is trying to convince you of something, and it can indicate the person doing the promising is worried you don’t trust them. If they are worried about that, maybe there’s a good reason for it!
  • People who ignore the word “no.” The refusal of a person to accept or hear when you say “no” is a good indicator that they are trying to control and manipulate you. It signifies a lack of respect for you and your choices and boundaries, and if you notice someone doing this, they should not be trusted. Think of it like the pushy salesperson who “won’t take no for an answer.” This can make you feel trapped, like it’s easier to just go along with what they want than to resist

What makes the vaping community friendly and welcoming is also what can make us susceptible to fraudsters, especially in times like these where we are desperate for the support and acceptance of politicians, regulators, health advocates, the news media, and the general public.

With the onslaught of smear campaigns, disinformation, and misleading news reports, we are desperately searching for supporters and partners in this battle to save our lives, and (for many) our livelihoods. Just keep in mind that we must also remain vigilant and protect ourselves from people who might take advantage of our desire for acceptance and understanding.

I quit smoking with vaping in 2014 and have been advocating for the products ever since. I am the creator of The Truth About Vaping channel on YouTube, which consists of informational deep-dives on topics like the MSA, nicotine, and the players that influence the war on vaping. I've also written articles for Vapun Magazine. I work in the vaping industry, and in 2019 I joined the CASAA board. (This article does not necessarily represent the views of CASAA.)
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