Giving to a Presidential Candidate? Read the Fine Print

The 2008 presidential candidates are reaching out as never before to Americans who have never before donated money to a presidential campaign.

Sen. Barack Obama, in particular, has been hugely successful, raking in millions of dollars from first-time contributors. But for anyone thinking of sending in a check, a cautionary tale: Pay close attention to whom you are sending it.

Ercell Hoffman, 65, of Compton, Calif., recently received a flyer from the organization Californians for Obama promoting the sale of tickets for a three-day cruise to Mexico to get away "with powerful women."

Among the celebrity guests promised to attend were actress Eartha Kitt, poet Maya Angelou and California Rep. Diane Watson, among others.

At $2,400, the getaway was no bargain, but Hoffman figured it was for a good cause.

"I thought it was in support of Obama's campaign," she said. "I had received a letter from Obama earlier on, and when the notice came from Californians for Obama I thought it was like a follow-up from him."

The organization has a convincing Web site, featuring a smiling picture of the candidate. But Californians for Obama has no connection whatsoever with the Obama campaign.

Even worse, Kitt, Angelou, and Watson had no plans to attend the cruise -- they weren't even aware they'd been invited. In fact, Maya Angelou supports Hillary Clinton.

Californians for Obama is legally registered with the Federal Elections Commission and has been following the necessary reporting timetable for income and expenditures. The group recently reported earnings of nearly $10,000.

Where Does the Money Go?

The state chairman of Californians for Obama, Emmett Cash III, spoke exclusively with ABC News about the group's efforts.

"I love Obama," he said. "Everybody working with the campaign does. He gives us hope."

Obama's name also brings in big money. But roughly two-thirds of funds raised so far have gone to Cash himself. He insists that most of it was used as reimbursement for out-of-pocket expenses -- mailers, gas and pizzas for the volunteers.

"What I am trying to do is educate people why they should vote for Obama, register people to ensure they know what our candidate is about," Cash said.

Campaign finance experts have their doubts.

"It's legal but that doesn't make it right," said Sheila Kromholz of the Center for Responsive Politics.

Cash says he's merely filling a void. He points out that the Obama campaign has focused much of its efforts in California on wealthy donors -- Oprah Winfrey is hosting a massive fundraiser for him in September, for example. Cash reaches out to people in the inner city.

"I fill the void because of the lack of inclusion," he said. "You know, African-Americans, Asians, Latinos -- we're the inner city. We're the urban America. Love us too! Let us put in our part."

Californians for Obama recently set up a booth at the Los Angeles marathon to register voters and pass out Obama-related literature.

In addition to the Women of Power cruise, the group is also hosting an upcoming rap concert. The bill includes several prominent rappers, but they appear on stage, Cash admitted. Instead, they'll be featured on a CD to be handed out at the concert.

Ercell Hoffman, who paid $2,400 for a "Women of Power" cruise ticket, feels duped.

"It's just unbelievable," Hoffman said. "I couldn't believe it wasn't true. That these people can pose as people working on his behalf and not doing so. It's fraudulent!

The Obama campaign has asked Cash to stop his fundraising efforts, and Hoffman is getting her money back.

The Center for Responsive Politics' Krumholz offers this advice to first-time contributors: "You have to read the fine print."

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