A month ago Jim Cowan ran two help-wanted ads in the Sunday newspaper for job openings at Memphis Machine & Supply Co., where he is vice president.
Two days later, he received the newspaper ad pages from two companies along with what looked like a bill for $103 to run the ads in an employment news publication."They looked exactly like legitimate invoices," Cowan says, although both had hard-to-read disclaimers that the invoice-like documents were solicitations, not bills. He didn't go for them.
A year ago Charlotte Gardner, business manager for Dr. Gale Gardner, her father, a Memphis physician who treats diseases of the ear, nearly paid for an ad in a telephone directory. She thought it was a renewal of the listing in the South Central Bell Yellow Pages. After her accountant discovered it was not, she refused to pay the $98 charge despite continued billings.
Not only businesses are barraged with schemes aimed at taking their money; promoters of prize giveaways, modeling careers, scholarship information services, charities and other enterprises are targeting individuals.
And in a relatively new twist, scam artists target previous victims with claims they can recover the consumers' money.
David Higgenbotham, a U.S. Postal Service inspector, says outfits will often flood an area with phony invoices for small amounts, such as $15, in hopes they will be paid with little attention.
John Myers, president of the Better Business Bureau of Memphis, said some of the directories for which people are billed actually are published but go mainly to the business owners who advertised in them. "What value is that?" he asks.
Business owners become targets of con artists because the promoters look for "someone who is busy, someone who is temporary or perhaps filling in or someone who wants to be accommodating," says Elizabeth Owen, director of the Tennessee division of consumer affairs.
Busy people may fail to examine apparent invoices and pay them because the amounts are generally small.
Temporary or fill-in workers don't always have the experience to recognize these schemes.
"I would encourage all business owners and managers, first of all, to become aware of these scams," says Owen. "The second thing they must do is alert all their employees, not just managers and supervisors."
Consumers face a variety of plans designed to get their money. Here are some that are "hot."
- Prize winners:
Most recently, Beauty Box Limited has told people they are winners of prizes, but must send the company $299 to $600 for shipping, handling or insurance, Myers says.
"If you truly win something . . . you do not have to pay in order to win," Owen says. But often people send in the money and either receive nothing in return or a prize worth far less than they were led to believe they had won.
"Telefunding" is a variation of the prize scheme. Telemarketers pick a nondescript-sounding charitable organization, tell you that you've won a prize and ask you to make a charitable donation in return, Myers says. Often, little, if any, money goes to the charity and your prize is a throwaway gift.
- Phony credit card ap-pli-ca-tions:
Scam artists use your name, address, telephone number, employment record and bank account number to get credit cards in your name, says Higgenbotham. They often get that information from people's trash.
"Whenever I'm discarding something with my bank account number or credit card number, I will tear out the number first," he says.
- Scholarship information:
Parents of high school seniors get solicitations offering to provide them with scholarship or financial aid information for $75 to $200. The catch: You can get most of that information for free from high school guidance offices, college financial aid offices and libraries.
The bottom line, say the experts, is to think and use common sense to avoid being taken.