Last December, somebody using the name "Test Person" from "Some Place, UT" made a series of contributions, the largest being $764, to Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign. The contributions totaled $2,410.07.
Someone else identifying himself as "Jockim Alberton" of 1581 Leroy Ave. in Wilmington, Del., began giving to Obama last November, contributing $10 and $25 at a time for a total of $445 through the end of February.
The only problem? There is no Leroy Avenue in Wilmington. And Jockim Alberton, who listed both his employer and occupation as "Fdsa Fdsa," does not show up in a search of public records.
A New York Times analysis of campaign finance records this week found nearly 3,000 donations to Obama from more than a dozen people listing apparently fictitious donor information. The contributions represent a tiny fraction of the record $450-million Obama has raised. But the obviously questionable donations — some donors simply entered gibberish for their names — raise questions about whether the Obama campaign is adequately vetting its unprecedented flood of donors.
It is unclear why someone making a political donation would want to enter a fake name. Some perhaps did it for privacy reasons. Another more ominous possibility, of course, is fraud, perhaps in order to donate beyond the maximum limits.
There is no evidence that questionable contributions amount to anything more than a small portion of Obama's fundraising haul. The Times' analysis, conducted over just a few days and looking for obvious anomalies, like names with all consonants, identified about $40,000 in contributions from people that appeared not to exist. And these donations had not been refunded by the campaign as of its last filing with the Federal Election Commission in September.
It appears that campaign finance records for Sen. John McCain contain far fewer obviously fake names, although he has also taken in about $200-million in contributions, less than half Obama's total.
Although campaigns have long wrestled to some degree with questionable donations, Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said the record-setting number of new donors Obama has drawn, many of them online, presents obvious new challenges to a compliance system that remains stuck in the past.
She pointed out, however, that it would take an extraordinary amount of coordination to pull off widespread fraud.
Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, highlighted the more than 2.5-million donors it has had to wade through and said: "We have been aggressive about taking every available step to make sure our contributions are appropriate, updating our systems when necessary."
But even a contributor who used the name, "Jgtj Jfggjjfgj," and listed an address of "thjtrj" in "gjtjtjtjtjtjr, AP," was able to contribute $370 in a series of $10 donations in August.
In some cases, campaign finance records showed some refunds from the Obama campaign, even as other contributions were accepted. Obama officials said most of their vetting occurs after the donation comes in.
"I think the candidates need to be clearer about the vetting systems they're using and demonstrating they're sufficient to weed out potential fraud," said Stephen Weissman, associate director for policy at the Campaign Finance Institute.
The questionable donations to the Obama campaign, most of which appear to have been given in small increments online, are bolstering the contentions of some campaign finance groups that additional disclosure requirements are needed for contributions that fall below $200.
Federal candidates are not required to itemize contributions below $200 to the FEC unless the donor's cumulative total adds up to more than $200.