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Yellow Pages Billing Scam Targeting Contractors

January 26, 2001
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The Yellow Pages have long been useful to businesses and consumers alike. However, fraud schemes are starting to come to light that contractors and other advertisers need to be aware of. Currently, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and the Yellow Pages Publishers Association (YPPA) are spreading the word about a bogus invoice scheme hitting contracting companies in every industry, nationwide.

According to YPPA, “One of the largest categories of advertisers in Yellow Pages directories are electrical, plumbing, hvac, and other contractors,” and are thus being specifically targeted by con artists.

Because the highly recognizable “walking fingers” logo was never trademarked by AT&T, fraudulent bills may look like originals, and it may not occur to businesspeople to question the invoices’ validity. Subtle differences, however, distinguish the fake invoices.

The most recent scam shows a form that claims the directory will be distributed annually with a circulation of 3,000 CD-ROMs. According to YPPA, “Although most bogus bills for the Yellow Pages advertising are generally under $200, the fax directory scheme invoice is for an astounding $965.15.”

“Bogus solicitations generally come in the form of an official-looking invoice requesting payment of a listing in a print or online directory,” said Karen Stanek, YPPA vice president. “They are designed to mislead recipients into thinking that they come from a legitimate publisher.”

Ron Berry, senior vice president for the Council of BBB, said that even those who have not been victimized can make a report. If you’ve seen such a solicitation, the Bureau wants to know about it.

“Once the BBB has information, we can warn other businesses, making it more difficult for con artists to successfully prey upon those who don’t recognize the scam,” said Berry. “Reporting scams also helps authorities appreciate the scope of the problem and determine what actions must be taken to combat the situation.”



Apprehended

According to the YPPA, while it is extremely difficult to apprehend and prosecute those who perpetuate bogus billing schemes, three con artists recently received federal prison terms for sending out more than $160 million in “renewal invoices” for Yellow Pages advertising to individuals, businesses, and organizations in all 50 states.

The convicted felons carried out the scheme from their native Canada, with help from conspirators in the United States who opened mailboxes at commercial mail-receiving agencies throughout the U.S.

“Victims were sent a pre-addressed envelope to mail their checks to these agencies, which forwarded the mail to a Canadian mail-receiving agency in Toronto,” said the YPPA. “The money received was then deposited in Canadian banks.”

Schemes have also been concocted for over-the-phone use.

Most people are familiar with telemarketing calls made to people’s homes. YPPA and BBB say telemarketing scams have taken on a different shape, calling business offices.

In these situations, the YPPA says fraudulent telemarketers misrepresent their status as a regular supplier and ship products without authorization.

Others falsely advertise the availability of venture capital or notify businesses that they automatically qualify for a line of credit for a large loan.



What to Look For

There are several things that differentiate a bogus bill from an actual bill for a Yellow Pages ad.

  • Don’t be fooled; just because an invoice has the “walking fingers” logo on the letterhead does not mean it is an actual bill for Yellow Pages advertising.
  • On the upper-right-hand part of the bogus bill there is an address, but there are no phone or fax numbers. Most companies give a phone or fax number so questions can be answered and problems averted.
  • As stated before, bills for basic Yellow Pages ads generally run between $100 to $200, according to the YPPA. If you see a $900 bill for a $200 service, a warning flag should go up.
  • Something’s not right if you receive a bill but didn’t request a service.


  • Protect Yourself

    According to the YPPA and BBB, there are a few things contractors can do to prevent this scheme from interfering with their business:

  • Examine every invoice carefully. Check files for pending contracts to ensure that the mailing relates to advertising or merchandise that has been ordered. Verify invoices with the appropriate executive responsible for written or verbal authorization.
  • Contact the local BBB before you respond to any unsolicited offer from an unknown business. Ask if the BBB has a report on the company or other information. If a scam is being perpetrated, the BBB can issue an advisory to alert other businesses in the area.
  • If you are not certain whether the directory is legitimate, ask for business and local bank references and check them out; find out how long the firm has operated out of its present location; and verify circulation figures and that the circulation fits your business’ needs.
  • Establish effective internal controls for the payment of invoices. Channel all bills through one department.
  • Photocopy fraudulent solicitations and post them on office bulletin boards to educate staff. Make sure your receptionist and office manager also know how to identify fraudulent telephone solicitations.
  • Notify the local postal inspector. The U.S. Postal Service works to stop fraudulent and misleading mail solicitations and wants to be informed. Com-plaints are filed according to Postal False Representation & Lottery Law and the Mail Order Consumer Protection Act.
  • For more information, or to make a report, contact either organization online at www. yppa.org (YPPA website), or www.bbb.org (BBB website), or contact your local BBB.

    Publication date: 01/29/2001

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