Shining a spotlight on scams: Part 1

Andrew Stantenby Andrew Stanten

We spend a lot of time on this blog educating and informing readers about best practices for marketing in today’s hyper-competitive, increasingly digital age. We focus on effectiveness, efficiency, working within a budget and playing by the rules. We emphasize taking the ethical road – no bait and switch, no shady tactics for short-term wins, no spamming, no grossly over-inflated claims.

The goal, of course, is to help you market your business in a way that is profitable over the long term – and in a way with which you can look at yourself in the mirror each night. Unfortunately, not every business out there runs their marketing efforts in an ethical way. Some of them border on downright illegal.

One of the most unscrupulous marketing efforts I’ve seen in a long time was a series of letters I received at the Altitude offices. It centered around one of my favorite subjects – the yellow pages. Readers of this blog know that one of the first things I like to eliminate or significantly reduce in a client’s marketing budget is expenditure on the yellow pages. Like many marketing tactics, print phone directories had their time and place. And that time was before online search, easy-to-manage websites, a computer in (almost) every home and a smartphone in the hands of nearly 1 in 3 consumers. I have two phone books in my house. They are duct-taped together so my 4-year-old has an instant booster seat for when she wants to sit at the grown-up table.

So it came as a real shock to a colleague when she saw a bill for the yellow pages sitting on my desk. “We bought yellow page ads?” she asked with incredulous disbelief. No, we didn’t. It was sent to me from Yellow Pages United – an organization that sells online listings. The solicitation was designed to look like a bill from a legitimate yellow pages book, even down to the “walking fingers” logo (which is in the public domain, and may be used by any business).

“We bought yellow page ads?” she asked with incredulous disbelief.

The top of the “bill” reads “Renewal Invoice.” The clear implication is that I was being asked to re-up for something I previously agreed to purchase. It even included a bogus purchase order with my (poorly forged) signature and a listing with Altitude’s business and website address. Amount due? $792! The detail included $396 for current service and a “past due balance” of $396. Past due! For a spend neither I nor anyone in my office would ever authorize!

Naturally, this piqued my curiosity. Could it have been an honest mistake? No such luck. After several looks through the deceptive document, I finally noticed a disclaimer (“This is not a bill”) in barely perceptible print. I’m a relatively informed consumer of marketing services; I can only imagine how few recipients ever see the fine print.

I laughed it off as a poorly targeted scam, and didn’t think much about it until a few weeks later, when I received another “Past Due Notice” from Yellow Pages United. Talk about persistence! Thankfully, the good people at Yellow Pages United provided a toll-free number for questions about the “bill,” which a colleague called out of morbid curiosity. The “customer service representative” swore up and down that they’d received a signed invoice from me via U.S. Mail on Dec. 21, 2011, and that a copy of it was contained in the “bill” they’d mailed me. The rep explained away my clearly forged signature (which appears to be in the bubbly hand of a teenage girl) by saying that he “wasn’t standing over [my] shoulder when [I] signed it.” And he couldn’t have been more vague about the “this is not a bill” fine print; by his circuitous logic, since it appeared within “the black box,” it was part of the form that I had sent back in December, rather than the current mailer.

It might not be technically illegal, but it’s 100 percent unethical.

We had a good laugh over this one. But the laughter quickly turned to something resembling sadness. There are surely more than a few small business owners falling for this obvious scam; otherwise, such companies wouldn’t be able to afford multiple unsolicited direct mail pieces for each target. It’s a hell of a business plan … if you’re the type that can sleep at night after scamming people all day. It might not be technically illegal, but it’s 100 percent unethical.

Don’t believe me? Google “yellow pages scam.” And by all means, don’t pay these scammers.

Unfortunately, that’s just ONE example of the kind of scammy marketing tactics out there these days. There are plenty more – look for Part 2 of this series next week. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you’ve encountered. Post a reply here, or message me on LinkedIn. The more these kinds of practices are exposed, the better off we’ll all be.

Click here to read part 2.