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Skeptical of Business Services... PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Brian Dunning   

corporationIt's year end again, and about now I always get an extra annual load of junk mail. This particular batch is from companies who attempt to deceive small business owners into paying for unnecessary services that appear to be a legal requirement.

I received a typical solicitation today. Corporations are required to keep certain records, including the recorded minutes of shareholder meetings. In my case, once a quarter I type a sentence or two detailing any important decisions I made regarding my podcast, and I stick it in a file. This is a legal requirement, and it takes me ten minutes to comply.

Today's solicitation was from a company offering to store it for me, for $175, if I mail it to them. Nothing wrong with that. Probably not worth it, but certainly there's nothing wrong with offering such a service.

The problem is with the way they offered it. They sent me a form (click on image for larger view), at a glance similar in general appearance to the Secretary of State's official corporation forms. It even has a simulated serial number "stamped" (actually printed) on it. It has a "remit by" date of two weeks from the day I received it. It has an official looking seal printed in the top left. It is to be remitted to the "Corporate Compliance Recorder", which is simply the name of their company, but which they apparently hope I will mistake for the name of a government agency. In short, this company Corporate Compliance Recorder is hoping that I will mistake their solicitation for a legal obligation to some government agency that I believe I am required to fulfill. They hope I will send them a check for $175, and they are not going to any great pains to inform me that I have no legal obligation to do so.

I've received at least one other identical request in the past week from a different company, and once a month or so I get a similar form from a company, also disguising themselves as a government agency, offering to file my Statement of Information form for me for $150. (California corporations are required to file a Statement of Information, which is a prefilled form that I sign and stick in the reply envelope, with an annual fee of $25.) This particular company simply keeps the $125 profit and forwards my form to the Secretary of State.

I keep wondering if I should send this along to the district attorney. Some might interpret these solicitations as attempts to defraud small businesspeople.

The lesson to be learned is to be skeptical, even of your mail. Just because someone's asking for your money doesn't mean they're entitled to any of it.

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written by Kuroyume, December 31, 2008
The best course any time someone says 'you must do this' when they appear to be a third party is to go around them and verify it. At the extreme, get a lawyer to check it. At the least, check resources like the BBB and your state and federal web sites and documents.

Put succinctly, if such drastic notifications are arriving via your email, you should be wary from the get-go. If the solicitation doesn't arrive in an official postal mail with details about verifications and channels, deem it quite suspect. For instance, of the thousands of 'valid' unsolicited Paypal emails that I receive, I can only recollect one that was actually a real email which required action. And instead of using the email itself to get online and resolve, I went to Paypal directly to see the situation and resolve it. As an example, if you get an email from your bank that all of your funds have been depleted and you need to funnel money into the account to cover checks, don't click the email links (EVER). Go to your regular online bank site or to the bank in person and see if there is any validity to the email. Social engineering is a high art in the hacker community - be cautious always!
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written by Cuddy Joe, December 31, 2008
A lot of enveloped jumk mail (snail mail variety) employs the deception Randi speaks of by trying to make it look like an 'official' missive of some sort. If/when you open it 'just in case', it's usually an even more deceptive auto dealer spiel or real estate auction hustle. I've contacted local businesses to tell them I'll never do business with them because of their deceptive marketing, pointing out it seems wise to me to avoid doing business who's attempted to deceive me from the gitgo, but they don't seem to care. Obviously the technique works. Thanks, all ye morons who fall for this crap and make it viable and make it proliferate. A pox on the.
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written by jj, December 31, 2008
I get about 20 of these a week, and I don't even run my own business. It's totally absurd.

Of course, we also get the "NOTICE, YOU HAVE ONLY 30 DAYS TO DEAL WITH YOUR MORTGAGE" nonsense that is a solicitation from a 4th party who wants my money because they imagine that I might want to have a new mortgage at a higher rate for a longer term. (huh?)

We shred the lot at this point.
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written by Paul Claessen, January 01, 2009
So .. then I'm probably also not going to get that $21 million from the Nigerian Barrister Dr. Ahmed Tijani?
(http://www.quatloos.com/cm-nig...museum.htm)

Another snail-mail scam to watch out for (when you're an Internet domain owner), is an officially looking document that urges you to renew your domain ("you MUST renew NOW").
This is NOT from your registrar, but from a company (companies, I'm sure there are more of 'm) that, once you sign the form, will transfer your domain and charge WAY more than your original registrar.
Another thing (this happened to a friend of mine two weeks ago): if you let your domain expire, especially when it had some traffic to it, it will be picked up WITHIN an hour or so, and you can buy it back for about $500 (probably more if it was a popular site). Nothing illegal here ... but I'm sure the companies who do this, get some pretty nasty email every now and then!
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written by Kuroyume, January 01, 2009
On the domain name thing, you really want to purchase at least three years or more at a time especially if this is your business domain. There is also domain expiry protection which guarantees that your domain will be held from use or resale for some limited time (30/60/90 days). If you can't afford these options, then make sure to remember your expiration timeline and renew within a reasonable time period.
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written by spotthelooney, January 01, 2009

There are also bottom-feeding debt collectors who will buy old debts from credit card companies and the like for pennies on the dollar, and then make harassing calls and send threatening letters to the original debtors. Unfortunately, many of such debts had been paid or are past the statute of limitations, or the collectors will contact relatives, neighbors, or people with similar names, and harass them.
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written by KRL, January 01, 2009
The political and religious right use similar techniques to frighten, deceive and steal from those who receive their missives of mendacious begging.

My household receives 15 to 25 examples of these official/government appearing envelopes of all sizes every week on issues ranging from the liberal/Democrats plans to close churches, lock up christians, build a highway from Antarctica to the Hudson Bay, starve Oliver North and Newt Gingrich to death or some other dastardly deed.

If they weren't so dead serious, they'd be comical.
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written by Paul Claessen, January 01, 2009
@KRL: "... issues ranging from the liberal/Democrats plans to close churches, lock up christians .. starve Oliver North and Newt Gingrich to death"

Hey! Where can I donate?

(j/k)
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Two central issues suggested by your article
written by feldesq, January 01, 2009
Issue #1: To what extent is our government obliged to restrict the market? Corollary to that question: would such restricting be interference with free speech?

Issue #2: To what extent is society as a whole (and this usually means government) responsible for educating the public against its own gullibility -- in this case meaning ignorance and stupidity? ignorance and stupidity are wholly different failings. Ignorance can be self-inflicted or can be due to the failure of teachers (which includes parents). Stupidity can be due to heredity or affliction from happenstance.

Issue #1 is addressed more easily: Insidious forms of "marketing" as manifested here go beyond mere advertising (please pardon this digression, but so much of the tweedle that constitutes advertising is in itself insidious -- but this must remain a subject for another discussion). The types of form being targeted in this article are clearly deceptive, and as such should not be protected by free commerce or speech protections.

Issue #2 should be the province of general education (i.e., government). People must be educated in critical thinking techniques. An entire curriculum is offered by skeptic educators. Such curricula include pre-K through post-graduate training. Just as Thomas Jefferson asserted that only an educated electorate could responsibly participate in democracy, we must today see that critical thinking literacy is fundamental to all education. Without such thinking skills, all other education is little more than information without purpose. Critical thinking illiteracy is the greatest threat to mankind.

Addressing Issue #2 is what the JREF is all about.
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written by jj, January 01, 2009
Spotthelooney has a good point, too. It seems that at one point I would up with the phone number that used to belong to an Episcopal Bishop's "Help" line. Among the calls I got on that line were the "hello, Mr J, where is our Honda". It seems that somebody took the phone number originally held by the bishop (who didn't have or own the honda, either, he tells me), used it, got a lease, and then drove away.

These twits kept calling me for about two years, threatened to "get a warrant to examine my cars". I finally suggested that if they called again I'd be glad to file extortion charges against them, since they had my name wrong (wrong Mr. J ...), I didn't have any kind of a honda, never had, didn't lease cars, didn't live at the address they were threatening to get a warrant for ...

Their first response was "we can trace your phone number and find out your new address" to which I replied "good, do that, and I'll file B&E on you if you step onto the property. You are not welcome, and you'd better have that warrant"...

AT this point, they bumped me to a supervisor who read the whole file, claims to have written THIS IS NOT THE RIGHT PHONE NUMBER DO NOT CALL IT AGAIN on the top and bottom of the file, and told me I wouldn't hear from them again. So I only heard again twice. Once back in NJ, for which I said 'read the (rude word) file' Pause. 'Oh'. Click. Once here, following the "number changed", same deal.

It's not just that they sell old debts, the people who collect them are dishonest, aggressive, and prone to making threats that amount to extortion.
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written by bela okmyx, January 01, 2009
Consumer Reports has letters like these all the time in their "Selling It" section on the last page of the magazine. Unfortunately, the D.A. won't be able to help out much, because of the disclaimer near the bottom: "USPS CODE 3001. THIS IS A SOLICITATION FOR THE ORDER OF GOODS OR SERVICES, OR BOTH, AND NOT A BILL, INVOICE, OR STATEMENT OF ACCOUNT DUE. YOU ARE UNDER NO OBLIGATION TO MAKE ANY PAYMENT ON ACCOUNT OF THE OFFER UNLESS YOU ACCEPT THE OFFER." The form may look pretty deceptive, but the bold text means their asses are covered.
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written by bela okmyx, January 01, 2009
Continuing my previous comment: It's not my intent to play devil's advocate here, but anyone of reasonable intelligence who actually read this all the way through would see the words "This is... not a bill... you are under no obligation to make any payment..." and toss this in the trash.
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written by cwniles, January 01, 2009
This was looked at by the BBB back in 05, here is a link to their response...sorry for the long link...

http://www.santabarbara.bbb.org/BBBWEB/Forms/General/BBBNewsArchivesPageDetail.aspx?News_ID=109&sm=

As Bela says, their asses are legally covered (morally is another issue) but Bela, it's beyond "looking deceptive", it isdeceptive, just technically not in violation of any existing laws.
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KRL, you don't get the lefty junk mail?
written by Don Gwinn, January 01, 2009
KRL, you only get junk mail from the right? I get junk from Democrats, gun control groups, the NAACP and everybody else, it seems. Kathy Ryg (a legislator here in Illinois) sent out a flier claiming that she wanted to pass an "assault weapons ban" because "weapons like these don't belong on Illinois streets."

The photos were of a .50 caliber Browning machine gun. It's illegal about seven different ways in Illinois, and the law she was claiming to support has nothing to say about such weapons anyway, but it sure looked scary.
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Send 'em to the postmaster
written by DrMatt, January 02, 2009
They're probably mail fraud. Let the postmaster lock jaws on 'em and extract a pound of flesh.

I recently got one from Fort Lauderdale (irony!) claiming that my "dealer warrantee" for the drivetrain of my car is about to expire (there's a manufacturer warrantee for 10 years or 100k miles, but it's nowhere near expired), and offering me a third-party "warrantee extension". I smell fraud, so straight to the postmaster it goes.
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written by bml, January 02, 2009
... offering to file my Statement of Information form for me for $150. (California corporations are required to file a Statement of Information, which is a prefilled form that I sign and stick in the reply envelope, with an annual fee of $25.) This particular company simply keeps the $125 profit and forwards my form to the Secretary of State.

Actually, they get the whole $150 because they send the form to YOU with instructions to send it in to the state with the $25. That was cryptically included in the legalese at the bottom of the form on the last one I got. They cannot sign and file the form for you.

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written by Trish, January 03, 2009
The political and religious right use similar techniques to frighten, deceive and steal from those who receive their missives of mendacious begging. - KRL

I would also include threats that don't come via the USPS:

give us your money [tithing], give us your children [useful for lifelong unpaid labor at monestaries, abbeys & convents], and give up all pleasure or you will BURN IN A LAKE OF FIRE

Oh, Don Gwinn, KRL Specifically mentioned liberals & democrats among the groups whose mailings are innumerates.
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written by Don Gwinn, January 03, 2009
Well, no he didn't, but I can see where the confusion came in:
The political and religious right use similar techniques to frighten, deceive and steal from those who receive their missives of mendacious begging.

My household receives 15 to 25 examples of these official/government appearing envelopes of all sizes every week on issues ranging from the liberal/Democrats plans to close churches, lock up christians, build a highway from Antarctica to the Hudson Bay, starve Oliver North and Newt Gingrich to death or some other dastardly deed.

If they weren't so dead serious, they'd be comical.


He was talking about mailings from the "right wing" about liberals and Democrats. I just pointed out that the other side does precisely the same thing.
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written by Don Gwinn, January 03, 2009
I would also include threats that don't come via the USPS:

give us your money [tithing], give us your children [useful for lifelong unpaid labor at monestaries, abbeys & convents], and give up all pleasure or you will BURN IN A LAKE OF FIRE


You haven't met my relatives. They get all those things in the mail. And they answer some of them.
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written by Trish, January 03, 2009
Don Gwinn,

Sorry I misread you
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written by Steel Rat, January 04, 2009
There are also bottom-feeding debt collectors who will buy old debts from credit card companies and the like for pennies on the dollar, and then make harassing calls and send threatening letters to the original debtors. Unfortunately, many of such debts had been paid or are past the statute of limitations, or the collectors will contact relatives, neighbors, or people with similar names, and harass them.


Worse yet. My wife had an amount she owed for the cell phone her daughter was using. But the account had been cancelled and AT&T REFUSED payment. But it kept showing up on he credit report. After repeated attempts, AT&T then said they had no record of the account (it used to be a Cingular account) and that we should go to the kiosk where we bought it, which didn't exist any more.

Talk about a nightmare.
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written by BillyJoe, January 06, 2009
but anyone of reasonable intelligence who actually read this all the way through would see the words "This is... not a bill... you are under no obligation to make any payment..." and toss this in the trash.

Provided you read to the end and provided this overcomes the bias that they have created in you that this is a bill you need to pay "withing two weeks".

I have never been fooled, but my receptionist has. Moreover, it is the receptionist they are trying to fool. It happened once about two years ago and I happened to come across the receipt (for advertising space in the local phone book). I phoned them immediately. All I needed to do to get my refund was to mention the words "deceptive advertising".

Now I demand to see all these advertisments. I post them back "return to sender" and with "DECEPTIVE ADVERTISING" written across them.

I don't understand why this sort of thing is not illegal.

BJ
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