On January 25, 2010, a coworker e-mailed me after a brief panic. She had just received an e-mail with the subject line “Final notice,” and thought her car was going to repossessed.

But her car wasn’t in danger of disappearing—and she e-mailed me because I was the one who sent the message, to her and 250,000 other people, asking them to sign a petition about a public option in the healthcare reform bill.

I was in charge of e-mail advocacy for the blog Firedoglake, and it was part of my job to get people to open e-mails, sign petitions, and make donations to support our work. I thought using “Final notice” would get more people to notice the pitch, which began “This is your final notice to sign our emergency petition to progressive Members of Congress…”

Unfortunately, it appears I was among the first in the political advocacy world to employ that deception, and today the tactic is increasingly common. Recently, I woke up to an e-mail from an address that began FINAL-NOTICE, and the subject line was “AUTO-CONFIRM: [M. Whitney (3/31/2015)].” It wasn’t from my bank, but rather the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The DCCC and the House Majority PAC (a group also working to elect Democrats to Congress) are probably the two biggest offenders when it comes to faux-debt collection fundraising pitches, but they are not alone. The National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee also sends similar e-mails, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Republican party, and the Prop 8 Legal Defense Fund have all tried it in the recent past.

 

I get that political e-mail fundraising has taken on an even more frenzied, gimmicky, and desperate approach than ever before, as the need for cash becomes increasingly important in politics, and as more and more campaigns are competing for inbox attention.

But these pitches are different, and dangerous. They bank on fear: that the recipient missed a payment; that they’re behind on bills; that their power will be cut.

The first instance I can find of this tactic is actually from the AFL-CIO in January 2010, when the labor group ran a digital campaign in support of financial reform. An e-mail with the subject line “Final Notice—Payment Past Due” was for a campaign asking labor activists to sign a petition telling major banks that it was their “final notice” for a “past due payment” for the damage they caused to the American economy.

Most e-mails in this genre follow a similar formula. They feature phrases like “NOTICE: [CANCELLATION]” and “FINAL NOTICE.” Some might use an official-sounding beginning of an e-mail address (like SECOND.NOTICE@, or accounting-dept@). In the body of the e-mail there is sometimes more deceptive language, like “you are officially on notice” or “imminent cancellation.”

Granted, within a few sentences, it becomes clear that the e-mail is actually a political fundraising pitch. A DCCC official who would only speak on background told me the group trusts that people will quickly understand the difference.

But I have to wonder if even a moment of panic that something is wrong with your personal finances is irresponsible—and even predatory—especially in times of financial malaise.

People struggling with debt are at least twice as likely to have mental health problems, including 29 percent of people with “high stress debt” who have severe anxiety, according to a study from the University of Nottingham. Seeing an e-mail screaming “on notice” or “imminent cancellation” could be an anxiety-provoking event for some people. Anyone who has struggled to pay the bills, even temporarily, knows the dread of opening the mail to find increasingly urgent notices from banks, utility companies, or student lenders.

And plenty of Americans struggle with severe debt: an Urban Institute study last year found more than one-third of US adults are currently being hounded by collection agencies. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) found that millions of retired Americans are pursued by debt collectors, and that debt collection practices were the number one complaint by older Americans filed to the agency. More than 40 million Americans carry student loan debt, with 15 percent of student loans falling into default after just three years.

How many of these people have gotten one of these political pitches, exploiting a serious fear in pursuit of a $3 donation?

This is something fundraising professionals ought to consider going forward. The increased volume of e-mail that people receive has dramatically grown a culture of “optimization,” in the industry, which means making tweaks and changes to e-mails that can see a lift in fundraising numbers even if by a few percentage points. These changes can include different color buttons, mobile-friendly e-mail wrappers, or bigger fonts. Debt-scare e-mails probably achieve a decent bump too, but at what cost?

Aside from potentially turning off recipients, there could be political consequences as well. The College Republicans caught heat in 2004 for a deceptive direct mail program that asked senior citizens to donate to “Republican Headquarters,” while failing to mention aside from a small font at the bottom of a letter that the college group wasn’t affiliated with the actual Republican party.

There hasn’t yet been similar blowback to phony debt collection pitches—not yet anyway. Maybe it’s coming. But for me, it’s a line that I crossed once, and that I will never cross again.