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Senior Scam Alert: Business Directory Scams! [06/15/2006]

Senior Scam Alert: Business Directory Scams!

Christine Silva

Welcome to the Senior Scam Alert, a column designed to inform seniors of scams and cons that are regularly committed against them. People over 65 are targeted for scams more than any other age group, and account for 56% of all fraud cases, even though they are only about 13% of the US population.

Seniors and small-business owners beware! Unscrupulous scammers send out hundreds of thousands of "fake bills" for business directory services and unordered merchandise! Most of the time, the scammers will call ahead, and get the name of an unsuspecting employee or homeowner. In the case of small businesses, scammers will pose as customers, claiming to want legitimate products or services. They will glean as much information about the business as possible, and then ask for the employee's name.

The scammer then sends out an official-looking bill for directory services. The bill often contains the name, address, and business information. These scammers have no morals-they prey on churches, small-businesses, non-profit organizations, seniors, and charitable groups.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the nation's largest consumer protection agency, businesses and churches lose millions of dollars every year paying for bogus directory listings. Most of the time, the directory is imaginary, and the bills are completely fraudulent.

If the business owner resists paying the phony bill, the scammers threaten legal action and collections. Even if the businesses receive a directory, it is usually worthless-a cheap printed "directory" with little real advertising value. If you pay for the listing, you will continue to receive phony bills, and you may even begin to receive new bills for even more phony services.

If you are subjected to harassment because of one of these scammers, contact the FTC immediately, and tell the scammers that you are contacting the FTC and the police. Usually, that will stop the harassment. File a formal compliant with the FTC online, and keep a record of the phony bills and the complaint.

Here are some tips to help protect you from this common scam:

1. Check all your bills carefully; do not pay anything that seems like a dishonest charge. If you don't remember ordering something, contact the number on the bill, and check with employees. If it sounds like a "fake bill", trust your judgment and contact the FTC. Do not pay the bill!

2. Train your staff; tell them to answer all telemarketing calls with a firm "no". If a company is legitimate, ask for a catalog before agreeing to any purchases. And tell all vendors that they need to have an authorized purchase order before you will pay for anything. Purchase orders should come from the owner, the accountant, or a supervisor.

3. Treat unordered merchandise as a gift; if you receive unordered merchandise, don't return it, and don't pay for it. According to the FTC, "it's illegal for a seller to send you bills for merchandise you didn't order or ask you to send back the merchandise - even if the seller offers to pay the shipping costs... treat these items as a gift."

4. Know your rights; telemarketers MUST identify themselves as such, and telemarketers are prohibited by law from misrepresenting themselves or their products.

5. Report all fraud; at, or talk to a consumer counselor at 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). You can also report fraud at the Better Business Bureau, the state Attorney General, and the US Postal Inspection Service (

Telemarketers are all subject to the FTC's Telemarketing Sales' Rule. This law prohibits telemarketers from making false statements, or using certain high-pressure sales tactics to entice businesses and consumers into purchasing phony merchandise or goods. Unfortunately, unscrupulous telemarketers use illegal tactics anyway, because they know that most consumers are ignorant of the law.

If you have not already done so, go online and register at the US Federal Trade Commission "Do Not Call" listing. The website is: You may also call the toll-free number, 1-888-382-1222. Registration is completely free. After you register, you may also file a complaint online if you are harassed by a telemarketer. To file a complaint, your phone number must have been on the registry for 31 days. To file a complaint, you need the date you got the call, and either the name or telephone number of the company that called you. Write everything down.

Once again, always report fraud. The government cannot help you if you don't report the crime-- only "squeaky wheels" get grease!

Sources: Federal Trade Commission, Federal Do-Not-Call-Registry, The Financial Crimes Task Force of Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Christine P Silva, BA, CRTP, lives in California with her husband, two children, and three spoiled cats. She earned her undergraduate degree from San Jose State University, and her advanced accounting certificate and California tax registration from Cosumnes River College. She is the founder of the Sacramento Volunteer Tax Preparation Clinic, a free service offering tax assistance to low income and Spanish-speaking taxpayers.

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