When I first started writing my new online blog “Scammed, Etc.” earlier this month, the primary purpose was to supplement these weekly columns with updates, warnings and advisories about fraud-related developments that might not make it into a full-fledged Sunday column.
That was my original intent several weeks ago when I posted an item about a national “Scam Alert!” issued by the Better Business Bureau, cautioning business owners to be skeptical of telephone calls from anyone who claims to be representing an online version of the Yellow Pages.
But based on what I learned later from our regional BBB representative, I thought this shady business practice was outrageous enough to warrant broader attention.
Here’s how the national BBB described this scam for business owners in its Oct. 4 alert:
You get a call at work from someone claiming to represent an online version of the Yellow Pages. The caller says he is updating your listing in the directory and proceeds to ask a series of seemingly innocent questions, such as your company’s mailing address, telephone number and email address. Afterward, he reads it back and asks you to confirm that each item is correct.
Everything seems fine until a few weeks later, when your office receives a bill for hundreds of dollars for placing an advertisement in the online Yellow Pages directory – even though you agreed to no such thing.
As an example, the BBB alert contains an image of an invoice sent to an Ohio company, which found itself on the receiving end of an unexpected $599.99 bill for a one-year “online business listing w/free marketing package.”
So you pick up the phone to clear up this misunderstanding, only to find that the online directory firm insists that you agreed to place the ad during the original conversation.
When you protest, the representative plays back a doctored recording of the earlier call, which makes it appear you were saying “yes” to place the ad, not to confirm information.
Shortly after receiving the alert, I reached out to Connie Quillen, executive assistant of the Albuquerque-based Better Business Bureau Serving New Mexico and Southwest Colorado, to see if this practice was common to New Mexico.
Not only did she indicate her office fields calls about directory scams “regularly,” but that it just so happened to receive a fax that very day from a company using “Yellow Pages” in its name – Yellow Page New Mexico – which included the iconic “let your fingers do the walking” logo.
In this version, the company promised to create a Facebook page “without additional charges” for all registered customers of its online directory – with a bold-faced emphasis on “without additional charges.”
In order to be listed in the directory, however, the company charges $99 a month, payable one year in advance, for a term of two years – or at total of $2,376, according to the faxed order form.
“This is a legit business; this is what they do,” but it engages in what the BBB would consider “deceptive advertising” and “questionable business practices,” Quillen says.
An email request for comment from the Journal to Open Business Directory Ltd., which manages the online directory, was not returned.
When Quillen went to www.bbb.org to check out the complaint history against Yellow Page New Mexico, she found the company had an “F” rating, based no doubt on the 1,391 complaints filed against it, including the failure to respond to 394 brought by businesses.
“When (your) article ran we received several phone calls from people saying, ‘I got the same thing,'” Quillen says, including one call from a gentleman who said the company had threatened to turn him over to a collection agency over his $1,100 bill.
As it turns out, even her office gets calls from online directory firms, Quillen says, and it’s virtually impossible to determine over the phone whether it’s on the up and up.
“It’s tricky even for me to figure out if they’re legit or not,” she says, since sometimes the calls are from reputable directory companies.
That’s why her office has enacted a policy – one she recommends to all businesses – of never disclosing even basic company information over the phone, instead asking for something in writing. That gives you time to “check out the small print” and to research the company, Quillen says.
“That’s our advice to consumers and actually what we follow here,” she says. “We won’t do any updates over the phone for any Yellow Pages.”
Here are a few other tips from the BBB’s scam alert:
- Hang up before you acknowledge anything having to do with your company.
- Remember that “Yellow Pages” is not trademarked, meaning anyone can use that name or logo in fraudulent sales pitches.
- Don’t trust caller ID – the name that shows up on your phone may have no connection to the person on the other end of the line.
- File a complaint with the BBB.
Nick Pappas is assistant business editor at the Albuquerque Journal and writes a blog called “Scammed, Etc.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-823-3847 if you are aware of what sounds like a scam. To report a scam to law enforcement, contact the New Mexico Consumer Protection Division toll-free at 1-800-678-1508.