Posted on February 11, 2010 by Tim J Short

by Bob Manista - President & CEO of Better Business Bureau Serving Central Oklahoma

Most business owners like appearing in a yellow pages directory or two. Some spend significant money on ads directing customers to their companies' services. Unfortunately, con men - both in the States and abroad - know that directory advertising can be a critical part of doing business, and are willing to exploit misunderstandings and half-truths to get your money while providing little or nothing of value.

The scam is both typical and easy to spot. Your receptionist answers the phone and the con man identifies himself as being a representative of "the yellow pages," or "your directory." (They are almost universally vague about the publication name in an effort to create confusion or the assumption that they represent the most popular directories.) The supposed purpose of the call is to "confirm your business listing" and the con man asks whoever answers the phone to either say the listed data is correct or actually list the contact information for the business. After the info is confirmed, the con man may ask a series of "yes or no" questions, and may ask to confirm credit card or billing information. (They'll do this as simply as saying "You want this billed to the same address, right?") The "yes or no" questions have often been recorded and re-cut as a confirmation of an order for special listings or services. By the time someone is transmitting credit card data, the cat is out of the bag and you may be charged for listings.

What do you get for your money? Maybe nothing. Some international directories exist, both in the real world and online, but they have extremely limited circulation or are not widely promoted. An infamous Swiss website has a number of listings from seemingly localized U. S. businesses like barber shops - which may be faithfully and accurately listed, but needlessly reported to an international cabal of viewers. Some directories go unpublished or print only a couple dozen books - enough to provide "tear sheets" for the unlucky (and often unwary) advertisers.

The billings for such publications are notoriously difficult for a business to fight, partly because the perpetrators of the scheme are often outside the country. Your best protection is to make sure everyone who might answer the phone at your business is aware of the scam and will take steps to avoid giving the con man a green light.

  • Make sure only one person is responsible for your business' directory advertising. Relay any inquiries to that person.
  • Carefully restrict access to any credit card or billing information among your employees.
  • Beware of calls "confirming" company data, especially those from inquirers with foreign accents.
  • Ask the company name of the publisher of any directory. If you don't recognize the name, hang up.
  • Do business with directories only in business and/or in writing. Demand a written invoice before giving permission to go to print.

Remember (and remind your employees) that the famous "walking fingers" logo does not belong to any one entity. The logo was not copyrighted by Ma Bell or A T & T, so anyone with a scanner can reproduce it and place it in billings. That logo itself is no guarantee of the legitimacy of the directory.

Limit your business listings to two or three directories at most. Expanding your reach may sound like a good idea, but the effectiveness of those listings is arguable. Research how your customers first located you and stick with what works. The more directories your business appears in, the more likely you or your staff will be confused by marketing calls.

Also of note is a practice in which con men broadcast mail throughout an area, sometimes containing an invoice or small rebate check associated with phone listings. The invoice may not be a real billing, but a contract to do business with the company - by returning the disguised contract/invoice with a check, you've obligated yourself to use the company's services. Fine print on the back of the $5 check might obligate you to thousands of dollars in unneeded services.

Listen carefully to callers, watch your mail, and call the BBB with questions on your Accredited Business Hotline: 405.236.5292.

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