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A woman views a Mitt Romney campaign ad in September, a month after the launch of an online government database that is supposed to make it easier for the public to see what political ads air in big markets, and how much is spent on them.
Poke into the obscure corners of the Federal Communications Commission's website, and you can find one of the deepest disclosures in campaign finance.
An FCC database, which the government just approved last April and began making public in August, posts documents that reveal which politicians and advocacy groups buy TV ads on major-market network affiliates, and how much they pay for those ads.
This database isn't the most user-friendly thing you'll ever find — not by a long shot. But it has its fans, including some nefarious data-miners who have used it to rip-off tens of thousands of dollars from political consultants.
Jim Kahl, a campaign finance lawyer at the firm Womble Carlyle, says he noticed the losses at a client company and then at other consultants as well.
"Month after month," he says, "they were having money fraudulently deleted from their accounts."
The money is sucked from bank accounts of media-time buyers, the middlemen who actually negotiate with the stations and place the ads.
The thieves search the database for the time-buyers' checks to the stations. Not that the FCC requires that the checks go in the database. But stations have always dumped lots of paperwork into their "political files" — kept in file cabinets at each station, under a decades-old regulation. (In 2010, then-correspondent Andrea Seabrook and I examined some of the political files in Pittsburgh. The quality of disclosure underwhelmed us.)
When the FCC set up the online database, nobody — not the ad buyers, the stations or the FCC itself — realized that more discretion was needed. The result: Thieves strolled through the filings, lifting account numbers, tracking numbers and authorized signers' names from the checks they found.
Kahl says one ad buyer was apparently targeted from Nigeria.
At the Smart Media Group, political director Paul Winn says the company hasn't been affected, "knock on wood." He says the thefts are especially troubling because the industry is shifting from check-writing to electronic transfers. "We're putting language on our orders" to the TV stations, he says. "Please do not insert any financial information into the public file."
Earlier this month, the FCC added a warning to its FAQs for broadcasters: "Stations that do place checks in the online political file may want to consider redacting any customer account information before making the material available online."
An FCC spokeswoman says that, as is customary, the FCC did not send out any alerts to the stations.