Businesses should be on the lookout for schemes aimed at hoovering up their hard-earned cash
Blair Bates received a fax at his Fredericton business a few weeks before Christmas asking him to fill out information for a Yellow Pages listing. He was about to sign it and send it back when co-worker Donna Conroy told him they had already filled out a similar form. Puzzled, he put the fax aside. By sheer coincidence, his local Yellow Pages rep happened by his office the next day. The salesman looked at the fax and said three words: “Throw that out.”
The fax was not from Yellow Pages Group, which publishes the eponymous listings in Bates’s local phone book. It was instead from an outfit called Yellow Publishing Ltd. That small detail was left to the fine print of the fax, which trumpeted the familiar-looking walking fingers logo and the name YellowPage-NewBrunswick. com. Also in the fine print? The cost of the listing — $119 per month for a two-year term, payable one year in advance, for a total near $3,000.
The form looked legit. But on closer examination, the walking fingers were actually flipped upside down. And the small print told the real story, Bates recalls. “It was really small. It was just one of those things — it looks like Yellow Pages, fill it out, send it back.”
His business — Bates Custom Laminating and Framing — employs three people. He can see how larger operations could be fooled more easily. “In big business, there’s probably people paying that and don’t even know – they just think it’s Yellow Pages advertising.”
Bates didn’t answer the first fax. About two weeks later, a second fax arrived; he replied to it in black marker, with an enthusiastic and blunt message to the sender. There was no third.
While Bates managed to avoid getting taken in by the scam, other companies are not so lucky. Yellow Pages imitators have endured and spread like a particularly hardy fungus, with recent stories hitting headlines across the country. According to the Competition Bureau, things appear to be getting worse. “The bureau has noticed an increase in these types of complaints over the last year,” says Gabrielle Tasse, a spokeswoman for the federal law-enforcement agency charged with protecting Canadian consumers.
Meanwhile, the “real” Yellow Pages Group is advising businesses to be vigilant.
“We are aware of fraudulent organizations which have chosen to pose as Yellow Pages Group in order to capitalize on our known and trusted name in local search and business advertising,” says Annie Marsolais, director of communications at the Montreal-based company. “(The company) continues to work with the Competition Bureau to address this issue and work with the appropriate authorities to address issues around trademark infringement as well as duplicitous solicitation of our client base.”
Marsolais says Yellow Pages Group does not conduct business by sending unsolicited faxes. Instead, sales reps carry out those transactions. She recommends that businesses who have been victims of fraudulent solicitation contact the Competition Bureau or the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre for help.
The Competition Bureau’s Tasse says she cannot comment on specific cases. But she does have general advice for those who may be targeted by scammers:
• You should read the fine print to understand what you are agreeing to;
• If you believe you have received an order form (via fax or other means) from a legitimate company, you should look up its number in the phone book or online, and contact the company to confirm whether they actually sent the offer;
• When reviewing bills or invoices you have received, you should confirm that you actually agreed to purchase the product or service prior to paying.
“Before responding to offers, businesses and not-for-profit organizations need to verify with whom they are dealing and understand what it is they are agreeing to,” Tasse notes.
If businesses and not-for-profit organizations receive — via fax or other means — any offer, bill or invoice that they believe to be false or misleading, she says they should contact the Competition Bureau. (The agency is online at www. competitionbureau.gc.ca).
Further complicating efforts to combat the Yellow Pages scam is the global nature of business today. Technology has shrunk once-vast chasms between buyer and seller — or scammer and potential victim.
“Generally speaking, when the bureau conducts an investigation, depending on the nature of the conduct, significant resources and time may be required to prove all elements of an offence or reviewable conduct,” Tasse notes. “Mass-marketing fraud knows no boundaries, and it (is) often necessary to partner with national and international law enforcement agencies in combating this type of conduct.”
Take the Yellow Pages-style fax received by Fredericton’s Bates. Tracing its lineage takes you to more locations than the latest Jason Bourne film.
The website domain for Yellow Publishing Ltd. is registered in the United Kingdom — more precisely, Manchester. But YellowPage-NewBrunswick.com (the web address prominently displayed at the top of the fax) leads back to a company called Yellow Page Marketing B.V., located in Amsterdam. The contact in Holland has an e-mail address with another domain, yellowpage-group.com. That site’s technical contact is apparently in the Swiss town of Allschwil, while the administrative contact is on the Spanish island of Mallorca, a popular Mediterranean holiday destination.
Got all that?
Another Atlantic Canadian business was apparently targeted by the same outfit. Charlottetown-based Video Pros received a similar fax, this one from YellowPage-PrinceEdwardIsland.com. Video Pros manager Kenny Martin says he received three invoices, each one more urgent than the next. He was confused about why Yellow Pages was chasing him for money, when the next year’s contract was not yet due for renewal. “The urgency of it … if somebody wasn’t savvy, the tendency would be to pay it and be done with it,” Martin says. Fortunately, he didn’t.
YellowPage-PrinceEdwardIsland.com is also affiliated with Yellow Page Marketing B.V., according to the invoice sent to Martin. A Canadian address is listed, although it is a virtual office and mail drop near Toronto’s Eaton Centre.
In April, the Australian Federal Court imposed penalties totalling $2.7 million against Yellow Page Marketing B.V. and Yellow Publishing Ltd. for sending thousands of businesses misleading faxes and invoices. The court ruling allowed Australian businesses to ignore any demands for payment from those companies. (The Competition Bureau won’t say whether there is any similar investigation underway in Canada.)
Charges have been laid against other business directory operators in recent years. In 2004, Alan and Elliot Benlolo received three years in a federal penitentiary and a $400,000 fine each for their involvement in a Yellow Pages-type scam. In 2007, Michael Mouyal was hit with a $1-million fine for his role in a business directory and office supply telemarketing scam that generated over $136-million in deceptive sales during a six-year period; five Mouyal executives had previously pleaded guilty, and received sentences of up to 18 months imprisonment. And three Montreal brothers — Gordon, Shawn and Ted Frank — were charged last year in an alleged $60-million business directory scam under the Infotel umbrella. They have elected trial by judge and jury, with court proceedings set to resume in October.
But Atlantic Canada has not just been home to the victims of such schemes, alleged or proven. Both Mouyal and Infotel set up telemarketing operations in St. John’s with the aid of grants and tax breaks offered by Ottawa and the provincial government. (Newfoundland and Labrador has since changed its policy to only attract inbound call centres, not those making outbound pitches.)
The situation has gotten so tangly that even the alleged scammers are now warning about being scammed themselves. Take this recent notice on the YellowPage-NewBrunswick.com website: “We have been advised that there are persons engaged in fraudulent phishing activities and that they may have ‘spoofed’ our websites and may have been making demands for money. Please note that any request for payment will not be made through an e-mail where you are asked to click on a link. Yellow Page Marketing B.V. or its associates would not send a request for payment in this manner.”
So there: you’re warned.