In the recesses of the internet where some of Donald Trump’s most fervent supporters stoke conspiracies and plot his return to the White House, suspected con artists have been mining their disappointment over the last presidential election for gold.
They’ve been peddling “Trump Bucks,” which are emblazoned with photos of the former president, and advertising them online as a kind of golden ticket that will help propel Trump’s 2024 bid and make the “real patriots” who support him rich when cashed in.
John Amann told NBC News he bought $2,200 worth of Trump Bucks and other items over the past year only to discover they were worthless when he tried to cash them in at his local bank. So he’s gone on Twitter to warn other Trump supporters not to fall for this scam.
Alert if you purchased any of the TRB SYSTEMS ITEMS, YOU GOT SCAMMED. THE TRB VOUCHERS, DJT GOLDEN CHECKS, DJT DIAMOND CHECKS, TRB GOLDEN CHECKS have no monetary values they are COMMEMORATIVE ONLY.
— John Amann (@JohnAma34828664) February 3, 2023
NBC News has identified the Colorado-based companies behind the Trump Bucks as Patriots Dynasty, Patriots Future and USA Patriots and reviewed dozens of social posts, online complaints and hundreds of misleading ads for the products. Additionally, NBC News has found at least a dozen people like Amann who say they invested thousands of dollars after watching the pitches on Telegram and other websites that strongly suggested that Trump himself was endorsing these products.
“Now I’m questioning whether he is aware of this,” Amann said of Trump.
Repeated attempts to reach a spokesperson for Trump and his re-election campaign by email have gone unanswered. No evidence suggests the alleged scammers are connected to Trump or his re-election campaign.
In addition to tweeting a warning to others about the scam, Amann said he posted a review on TrustPilot, a website where consumers can rate and review businesses.
The Federal Trade Commission, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from NBC News, confirmed it has received one fraud complaint against Patriots Dynasty that was filed in January. But it provided no further details about the single complaint or who filed it.
The Better Business Bureau has given the companies, which operate out of an industrial center in the Denver suburb of Aurora, an F rating, and the 33 complaints on the BBB site are unsparing in their criticism of the company.
Repeated attempts to reach representatives for the companies by phone and email were unsuccessful. But Bank of America spokesman Bill Halldin said he’s heard reports from bank employees of customers coming in to exchange their Trump Bucks for actual cash, but the bank routinely turns them down.
“It’s hard to put a number on how many people have come in,” Halldin said when asked for more specifics about who these people are and where they are located.
BOA, as a matter of course, is continually on the lookout for fraudsters and circulates information in-house about possible scams, Halldin said.
That’s little comfort to Amann, who is 77 and lives in Houston. “There’s no way to cash out what I have,” he said.
What it is
Since 2020, when Joe Biden defeated Trump in the presidential election, internet hucksters have been selling pro-Trump products like coins, checks and cards and marketing them as novelty items.
The fine print on the websites offering these items usually notes that they are memorabilia.
But on social media and in promotional videos — many featuring faked celebrity endorsements — the sellers have tapped an audience that believes Trump’s ouster was part of a great conspiracy and that by investing in the Trump Rebate Banking System, or TRB for short, Trump will reward their loyalty by making them rich.
Those who buy these items, the ads from Patriots Dynasty, Patriots Future and USA Patriots suggest, will be rewarded when Trump unveils a new monetary system that will turn these products into legal tender worth far more than the purchase price.
Invest in a TRB membership card “issued by Donald Trump,” the ads from Patriots Dynasty, Patriots Future and USA Patriots claim, and the purchaser who spent, say, $99.99 on a “$10,000 Diamond Trump Bucks” bill will be able to cash it in for $10,000 at major banks and retailers like Walmart, Costco and Home Depot.
“TRB system membership cards are official cards issued by Donald Trump to allow Trump Bucks holders to use Trump Bucks as legal tender and deposit them in banks such as JP Morgan Chase, the Bank of America and Wells Fargo,” a narrator identified only as “John” that appears to be a computer-generated voice says in one YouTube ad just moments after cautioning viewers that “Trump Bucks are not legal tender.”
“Wells Fargo has no affiliation with this product, and cannot accept it for deposit,” a bank spokesperson said.
JP Morgan Chase did not immediately respond to an email from NBC News seeking additional comment.
It’s a get-rich-quick scam that is catnip to a certain kind of Trump supporter — including QAnon believers and others who believe the former president is the only solution to America’s problems.
NBC also reached out to representatives for Walmart, Costco and Home Depot by email to see if they’ve had customers come in to try to cash in their Trump Bucks.
“We don’t have any connection to this, and it isn’t a problem we’re seeing at our stores,” Home Depot spokesman Terrance Roper said in an email to NBC News.
Walmart spokesman Robert Arrieta said “we have not heard of this scam.”
“We don’t have any program that resembles this,” Arrieta said and referred a reporter to the company’s fraud alert page.
Michael J. Clark, a former FBI agent who teaches criminal justice at the University of New Haven, said it’s likely many of the victims have not yet figured out they’ve been conned.
“If this is indeed a scam, the victims have not had enough time to realize they have been scammed as they will be awaiting the result of the 2024 presidential elections to receive the benefit of their initial outlay of money,” Clark said via email.
How it spreads
In AI-generated promotional videos shared on social media and in chat groups, celebrities and politicians, including Trump, appear to endorse the scam.
In one, Trump appears to announce the launch of the TRB system on Fox News.
“Let’s make America wealthy again,” the artificially generated voice of Trump says.
In another, Twitter-owner Elon Musk appears to say “That Trump certificate is not a joke, it’s real. Everyone needs to get as many as they can. I spend one million dollars on Trump certificates and this week I’m going to cash out my Trump items. Soon I will be the richest person on the planet again.”
In reality, the advertisement features footage lifted from Musk’s appearance at a TED event in 2022. The video ends with a slide advertising a free app that promises to “make your favorite celebrity say anything.
It’s so pervasive that even pro-Trump websites and Trump supporters have been sounding the alarm.
Blogger Noah Christopher, who is the moderator of the “WeLoveTrump” Telegram group with 26,000 subscribers, has urged his followers more than 30 times this year alone to “not get conned.”
“The faked videos have been posted relentlessly by fake social media accounts on Facebook, TikTok, and in Telegram groups catering to devoted Trump supporters,” Noah wrote last month. “Unreal how pervasive and aggressive this scam is.”
Christopher did not respond to an email from NBC News seeking additional comment.
One 75-year-old Alabama grandmother, who consented to having her picture taken but asked not to be identified by name for fear of internet harassment, told NBC News the message she got from watching the pitches on the internet was that Trump was going to make her rich.
But the grandmother, who describes herself as a “real patriot,” said what she got for the $1,500 she invested in Trump Bucks turned out to be fool’s gold.
“I saw all these ads on Telegram that had Trump pushing coins and checks that he endorsed and how you can cash them in after a year and make a profit,” the grandmother, who lives in Mobile, told NBC News. “I was told how you can go to Bank of America or Target or Amazon to cash them in.”
About six months ago, the grandmother said, she gathered up the Trump Bucks and commemorative coins she had purchased and drove 60 miles east to the nearest Bank of America branch she could find in Pensacola, Florida.
There, she said, she was greeted by a teller who told her she’d been scammed.
“When we get there the lady tells me she’s seen dozens of people coming in to cash these checks and they have nothing to do with this,” the grandmother said.
A Florida woman who lives north of Tampa, and who also asked not to be identified by name because she fears internet harassment, said her 77-year-old mother-in-law was also fooled into investing tens of thousands of dollars in Trump Bucks.
“My mother-in-law has always been conservative and prone to believe in conspiracy theories,” she said. “But after Trump lost the election, she went down the internet rabbit hole with this.”
This isn’t the first time her mother-in-law has fallen prey to a Trump-inspired scam.
“Several years back, she got into Nesara, which says that a radical reset of the U.S. economy is coming and all debts are going to be wiped out,” the Florida woman said. “She thinks she’s getting all the money back and that she’ll make a huge profit too.”
First, the Florida woman said, her mother-in-law “started buying all this support Trump memorabilia from a website that clearly states it's memorabilia.”
“From there, she went to other sites which has all sorts of people claiming that if you buy these Trump coins or these Trump checks for, say, a hundred dollars, you’ll be able to take them to a bank and cash them in for thousands of dollars.”
To prove to her mother-in-law that she had been swindled, the Florida woman said she drove her to a nearby bank and urged her to try to redeem the Trump Bucks in her possession.
“We thought she got it, she even admitted she got scammed,” the Florida woman said. “But then giant boxes arrived at the house full of Trump checks and other stuff that she bought for $500 and that would supposedly be worth $6 million one day. We tell her she’s getting scammed and she says, ‘Just wait, Trump will make all the patriots rich.’”
“It’s like she’s in a cult,” the Florida woman said.
Good question. It’s not clear who concocted the TRB system scheme or created the fake promotional videos.
A 2022 New York Times investigation reported a Romanian marketing company to be at the origin of so-called Trump coins — which had been wildly popular in 2022 and were also fraudulently marketed as a kind of alternative currency.
Most of the posts and videos for the TRB system currently link to websites registered with the company names Patriots Dynasty, Patriots Future and USA Patriots, whose listed address can be traced to Shipoffers.com, a shipping center in Aurora, Colorado.
Shipoffers warehouse manager Josh Pier said the center ships Trump-related products but said it doesn't manufacture them. He declined to discuss what those products are and would not confirm the names of the companies it ships for. The company handles shipping for a variety of companies, he said.
Pier was echoed by Tony Grebmeier, one of the Shipoffers owners, who said he was unaware of any problems with any of the products the company ships and said if he was aware of any issues he’d take care of them.
Responding to overwhelmingly negative Google reviews, Shipoffers tells unhappy buyers that it doesn't actually make the products or bill customers.
The TRB products are purchased through online retailers ClickBank and Digistore24, which are affiliate marketing networks based in Idaho and Florida that connect would-be promoters with products to sell and earn commissions.
The unique links posted across social media and in the captions of YouTube videos contain the usernames of these affiliate marketers, who get a cut from each sale generated by the fraudulent ads.
A list of URLS for just one website, shows hundreds of affiliate marketers associated with a TRB membership booklet, a product falsely marketed as necessary to redeem the TRB products for real money.
NBC News has also reached out to ClickBank, Digistore24 and ShipOffers for comment. When an NBC News reporter called the Patriots Dynasty phone number, she got a busy signal. There was also no response to an email sent to the address associated with Patriots Dynasty.
The Alabama grandmother says she was initially fooled by the AI version of Trump she saw in the ads. She trusted Trump’s supposed business acumen and thought this was a good investment to have something to leave behind for her children.
“Now I realize, well, that was stupid,” she said. “But I bought them because I believed President Trump, because he knows all about finance, and he was going to help the real Trump Patriots get rich.”
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com