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American Express Charity Scam

American Express recently ran a contest for charity.  The contest was simple: Vote for your favorite charity.  If your favorite charity was a top 25 vote-getter, it would be eligible for another round of voting.  The five winning charities (or "grand champions") would win a $2.5 million donation from AmEx.  Pretty cool, right?

The problem is that American Express lied. 

As Scott Greenfield reports here and here, some of the top vote-getters (including Fragile X Syndrome) were not eligible for the "grand championship."  (More here.)  Why?  AmEx won't say.

Here is what seems to have happened: American Express had it's pre-selected list of 25 charities.  Likely, people within the corporation had their pet causes.  It thus did not matter whether another charity received more votes than the preferred charities.  The final 25 charities had been determined.  No voting would have changed the result.

Why care, when at the end of the contest, some charity will receive $2.5 million?

I am not suggesting that any given charity is more entitled to American Express's tax-deductible donation.  Telling someone their charitable cause is unworthy of support is generally revolting.  My mom was recently chided by her minister for spending too much time at the local animal shelter.  Why wasn't she spending more time ministering to people?

Who among the meek are most worthy of support?  That is a personal choice, and one that should generally not be criticized.

That said, American Express committed fraud.

First, they ran a "contest" in order to generate PR for their company.  People with no business relationship with AmEx were forwarding e-mails to each other.  "Hey, go to AmericanExpress.com and vote!"  Since the contest was a scam, AmEx stole publicity.

Second, only people who registered with American Express were eligible to vote.  Many people registered with AmEx specifically to vote for their favorite charity.  AmEx thus scammed thousands of people out of their personal information.

American Express has the right to give (or not) money to its charity of choice.  AmEx does not have the right to lie to people in order to obtain their personal information. 

I hope a formal investigation occurs.  AmEx should at least be required to purge its databases of the information it obtained through its trickery.

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