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Be careful of solicitations for "free" listings!

Recently, a worried client sent me an e-mail saying that what the company thought was a "free" Internet directory listing of the company name and services had apparently turned into an expensive contract! What to do?

   After reviewing the information, it turns out that this "directory company" (headquartered in Europe with incorporation in Nevis, British West Indies) is a long-time spammer/scammer that preys upon unsuspecting business owners.The company's form starts out innocently enough:

Dear Sirs,

   We are compiling information for the Europe Business Guide. We wish to be able to inform other companies about your activities and what languages are spoken in your company. In order to list your company in the Internet for European businesses, just fill in and return the form. Any additional material of your company that can make your profile up to date is very welcome.

   We thank you for your cooperation.

And on the right side, there's a box that contains the following in prominent print:
Please fill in the form completely and send it back to:

P.O. BOX 2121
The Netherlands

Simple, right? EXCEPT that in teeny print above the box, there's this language:
To update your company profile, please print, complete, and return this form.
(Updating is free of charge). Only sign if you want to place an insertion.

Uh-oh. At the bottom of the form there is additional weenie crowded capitalized text saying that signing the form makes it a contract and the unwary sap is liable for 990 Euros a year for three years (that's about $1,412 US at today's exchange rate). Yikes!

Fortunately, there's a wealth of information that if anyone pushes back to the company taking issue with there being a contract, the company will stop its collection efforts (perhaps after one or two additional tries). But there are still many people out there who fall victim all too easily to this type of deceptive trade practice.

So with that in mind, here are a couple of tips on how to avoid these scammers, and how to respond if you have already taken the bait:

  • READ EVERYTHING. Seriously. Don't ever fill out a form, or sign any document, until you've read through it carefully. Even if you need a magnifying glass to get through the fine print, it's easier to be informed and safe than to ignore language at your peril.
  • If a company is trying to collect from you when it's induced you through deceptive means to sign something that you didn't understand was a contract, try pushing back at the company. Cite any language in the document that indicated it was providing a free service, and note any instructions to "complete the form" in proximity to the language indicating the company was providing a free service as evidence of deceptive trade practices.
  • If the company doesn't stop sending threatening messages or calls, contact your business attorney and get a letter or e-mail from the attorney to the company. That usually will stop the collection efforts.

There's no evidence that this particular directory company has EVER proceeded beyond threatening e-mails to any of it s victims; it's too easy to get those who don't read everything carefully and are easily intimidated to pay up. But you'll be better off if you don't fall prey to these scammers in the first place. BE CAREFUL!