The toner phoner scam

Know your rights when it comes to office supply fraud

Joey wrote to me about an old scam that appears to be on the rise. "I've been getting numerous calls from 'toner-phoners' lately," he explains. "You know, those shady outfits that sell toner cartridges. We have had to train anyone that could possibly answer the phones to watch out for these callers. The callers ask the model of our copier so that they can 'update their records.' Always their phone numbers come in as private."

This scam has been around for years for one good reason: It's profitable. According to the FTC, "Office supply fraud costs its victims -- large and small businesses, as well as schools, government agencies, and nonprofit institutions -- an estimated $200 million per year." And the scammers usually work just as Joey describes. The phone calls are essentially fishing for a weak link: a temp, or someone new who will give up a name the scammer can put on an invoice or, even better, agree to the shipment. According to FTC.gov/boss -- the site the FTC built to educated businesses about this fraud -- the scams go by several charming names.

In the Phony-Invoice Scam, the caller wants the name and address of an employee so that your organization can be shipped and billed for unordered goods or services.

The Pretender pretends to be your regular supplier. By convincing you that the goods and prices are the same as you have ordered in the past, the scammer hopes you won't bring up prices, quantities, or brands but simply agree to a reorder.

The Gift-Horse Scam tricks an employee into accepting a gift -- a free promotional item -- with a passing reference to merchandise or services. You may receive the gift, but you will also get overpriced, unordered merchandise and an invoice for the same. The hope is that your organization will think that the employee who accepted the gift goofed and you will accept the blame and pay the invoice.

The real scam starts, though, with the invoices. In fact, collection is where the scammer spends the bulk of his energy. He might send many invoices, some stamped "past due." He might create a bogus collection agency to hound you, and he may even threaten legal action. It is not easier to simply pay these bills, though -- even if the scammer negotiates a lower price, which he might. Paying will likely get you targeted for additional scams. Though the scammer may appear to give up and accept return of the goods, he will likely try to charge a restocking fee.

The FTC clearly states, "If you receive supplies or bills for services you didn't order, you don't have to pay, and you don't have to return the unordered merchandise. You may treat unordered merchandise as a gift."

Joey said the callers were annoying but wondered, "Aren't these practices illegal?" Yes!

According to FTC.gov, "The FTC attacks office supply fraud via the Telemarketing Sales Rule and by employing its broad authority under Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits unfair or deceptive practices. The Commission typically seeks temporary relief, such as asset freezes, to halt the practice and try to reimburse the victims."

The key to surviving this scam is to know your rights and train your employees. If you receive goods you didn't order, don't pay for them. They are a gift. If the scammer sends you an invoice for those goods, that's illegal. Report it. And to avoid accidentally falling for this scam, assign a designated buyer in your company. The buyer should send a copy of every purchase order to their accounts payable department and keep blank order forms secure. Make sure you actually ordered any goods that show up before you accept them -- or pay for them. And encourage your staff to practice saying no to telemarketers. Provide them with a script. Report any scams you encounter to the FTC or by phone at 800-382-4357. If you are fired up, report the scammer to the Better Business Bureau in your area to alert other potential victims as well.

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