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How Trump Steered Supporters Into Unwitting Donations

Republicans widely hailed WinRed as one of the standout successes of the 2020 cycle, and in a memo last October the company declared itself the “trusted, recognizable platform” for Republican giving. “Scam PACs, shady operators and outright fraud is unfortunately a common occurrence in the online political donation world — particularly on the right,” the memo stated. “WinRed helps civilize the Wild West of the G.O.P. donation ecosystem.”

But for some Trump supporters like Ron Wilson, WinRed is a scam artist. Mr. Wilson, an 87-year-old retiree in Illinois, made a series of small contributions last fall that he thought would add up to about $200; by December, federal records show, WinRed and Mr. Trump’s committees had withdrawn more than 70 separate donations from Mr. Wilson worth roughly $2,300.

“Predatory!” Mr. Wilson said of WinRed. Like multiple other donors interviewed, though, he held Mr. Trump himself blameless, telling The Times, “I’m 100 percent loyal to Donald Trump.”

All told, the Trump and party operation raised $1.2 billion on WinRed, and refunded roughly 10 percent of it.

Whatever blowback it received, WinRed was not deterred. Soon after the November election ended, the two Republican Senate incumbents in Georgia, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, deployed prechecked weekly recurring boxes in advance of their January runoffs.

Predictably, refund rates spiked.

Keith Millhouse, a transportation consultant in California, intended to donate once to Mr. Perdue, with the aim of keeping Republicans in control of the Senate. He wound up a recurring contributor and called the practice “repugnant” and “deceptive.”

“I’m busy like a lot of other people during this Covid era and I just wanted to get in, make a donation, get done and move on to what I needed to do next,” he said. “I thought I had done that. Then I find out that, you know, I’m getting these other charges.”

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