Shining a spotlight on scams: Part 2

Andrew Stantenby Andrew Stanten

In the first part of this series last week, I examined a curious series of direct mail pieces I received from a company called Yellow Pages United. Essentially, they were trying to fool me into paying an invoice (complete with my poorly forged signature) for a service I never ordered (and never would order). It would have been funny – except for the fact that small businesses have clearly fallen for it before.

Sadly, there’s a similar scheme going on in the world of video production. In this scam, one of several dubious video production companies targets a nonprofit or small business, hooking them with the promise of a “professional” video segment (“Hosted by a celebrity!”) that will be aired on network television, cable or PBS.

A few months ago, I got a call from a client who was excited at the opportunity. One of these companies had pitched him a 3-5 minute educational segment, a 5-6 minute corporate identity pitch and a high-end commercial segment. The educational segment was to be “distributed to Public Television Stations nationwide for unlimited broadcast at their discretion.” The commercial would be “broadcast on a national feed to 200 metro stations on CNBC, Fox News, MSNBC, or equivalent network” and would “target peak and prime time programs airing a minimum of 400 times.” Just for kicks, the video production company would also design and generate “a national or regional email campaign to an audience of up to 1 million.”

All for the low price of only $22,900.

My spidey sense went up – and for good reason.

The $22,900 fee was due before the 90-120 day production process began, meaning my client would have been out the cash for four months without seeing anything. According to the contract, failure to pay the $22,900 entitled the video production company to $6,870 as liquidated damages. For that kind of money, my client had better be getting something good. So I decided to pull apart the find print in the (hastily delivered, naturally) contract.

1. “Distributed” to public television stations implies it will air. But there is no guarantee it ever will. I put in a call to my good friend Amy Burkett, the station manager at PBS39 here in the Valley to get her take on the video production company. In all her years at PBS, she’s never dealt with them – and went on to say PBS would never make any promises to air segments they didn’t commission. So while the company might send the segments, there’s little chance of them ever ending up on a single television screen.

2. The commercial, they state, will be “broadcast on a national feed to 200 metro stations”. This implies it will broadcast on these stations – but again, it will merely be put on a feed from which anyone with a satellite downlink can grab what they want. I’m sure you can guess the odds of a station airing a free ad.

3. “These segments will target peak and prime time programs.” It will target them, but again, there is no agreement they will actually air.

4. Email distribution to “up to 1 million people.” They are relying on you to provide the list. I would think if you have an email list of significant size, you know how to push out your own emails.

So we compiled a list of questions and asked for a number of guarantees from the video production company, including the points cited above. Funny ­– we never heard back from them again.

Funny ­– we never heard back from them again.

Oh, and the part about a celebrity – in this case, Joan Lunden – “hosting” the segments? Let’s let Joan field that one. From a statement on her website:

“It has come to my attention that entities identifying themselves variously as American Milestones, The Journal, World Progress Report, Inside America, BiographyPT, Healthwise, Staying Current, Lifeline, Medwatch 411, Spotlight, The Bio Series, Imagine, Explore, View Point, Health Line and Discover have been using my name in an improper manner, without my consent, in solicitations promoting the production (at a substantial cost) of public relations videos, commercials and paid-for news segments …

“I wish to make clear that I am NOT connected with, and do not sponsor, endorse or approve of any such unauthorized activities. Such uses of my name in the solicitations for such programming, and any implication that I or any one in my office is the producer of such programming, is wholly unauthorized. Any person soliciting this type of programming who states that they are my assistant, my producer, my employee, or calling from my office, is doing so falsely. In addition, the use of my name in a product or service endorsement, as well as any statements that I have endorsed or approve of a product or service in connection with this programming, are false.”

Now that’s a ringing endorsement!

As with all things (especially ones that cost tens of thousands of dollars), do your research. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And remember: Scammers are out there. Don’t get caught.