A federal judge in Illinois honored a request from the Federal Trade Commission and temporarily halted a Slovakia-based operation that the FTC alleges took advantage of small businesses and non-profits by pressuring them into paying for worthless online directory listings that they didn’t authorize.
The FTC lawsuit alleges that Construct Data Publishers, also doing business as Fair Guide, sent out mailings to retailers, local associations and others who attend trade shows. The mailings appear to be asking the business to check the accuracy of information in a free “exhibitors directory” for regarding a specific trade show. The form implies that the business has dealt with Fair Guide in the past and that it is only asking for a routine confirmation.
However, the fine print contains a statement that by signing the agreement, the company agrees to pay $1,717 a year for three years. The FTC says administrative employees who aren’t authorized to sign contracts often return the form.
Businesses that refuse to pay up receive demands that they pay a Slovakian bank account. Late fees arrive and some businesses reportedly pay just to stop the harassment.
According to the FTC, the Fair Guide defendants have run into trouble with international enforcement officials in the past. In 2008, they moved their operations to Slovakia and agreed to stop soliciting businesses in the European Union when Austrian authorities went after them for deceptive practices. The FTC has sued to stop the scam and has asked the court to order refunds.
BBB recommends the following tips to help protect your small business or non-profit from directory scams:
- Verify the company name. Directories may have names that sound alike, so look closely to see who the offer is from.
- Do your research. Once you have the exact name of the company publishing the directory, check out its BBB Business Review to see its complaint history and other information.
- Watch for fraud. Alert your accounting personnel to be on the lookout for disguised solicitations, fake invoices and fraudulent phone calls.
- Route the calls to a single employee. Any calls to confirm directory listings or advertising should be forwarded to one employee or small department. That employee should be trained in how to confirm that a directory is legitimate and keep a list of every directory your company has agreed to be in. This ensures that your advertising and directory listings are tracked, and prevents scammers from claiming that another employee agreed to charges.