The ‘Yellow Pages’ Scam Keeps on Taking

Canadian Telemarketers Raiding US Small Businesses

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San Francisco Bans Distribution of Unsolicited Phone Books. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

While the so-called “yellow pages” scam comes and goes, a new group of Canada-based telemarketers is now attacking U.S. small businesses, nonprofits, churches and even local governments, according to complaints filed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

How the Scam Works

The “yellow pages” scam calls sound so innocent: Somebody calls your organization saying they simply need to confirm your contact information for a business directory. What could possibly go wrong? They never asked for money, right?

Whether they mention money are not, you are soon sent an invoice demanding you pay hundreds of dollars for your new listing in an online “yellow pages” directory – not at all something you ever asked for or wanted.

If you don’t pay, the scammers will often play you recordings – sometimes doctored – of the initial call to “prove” that you or your employees had approved the charges. If that doesn’t do the trick, the companies start calling you repeatedly to “remind” you of things like legal fees, interest charges and credit ratings.

According to the FTC, the companies would go so far as posing as debt collection agencies, offering to stop the harassing calls in return for a fee. “In the face of threats,” said the FTC, “many people just paid.”

FTC Files Charges

In separate complaints, the FTC charged Montreal-based telemarketing firms; Online Local Yellow Pages; 7051620 Canada, Inc.; Your Yellow Pages, Inc.; and OnlineYellowPagesToday.com, Inc., with running “yellow pages” scams targeting businesses in the United States.

How to Protect Your Business

The FTC recommended four ways you can protect your business from the “yellow pages” scam:

  • Train your staff: Educate employees on how the scam works and how to recognize dangerous calls.This is probably the most important step as alert employees are the best tool for stopping the headache before it starts. Once an employee interacts with the scammer, the flood of additional calls and invoices starts coming. 
  • Train your staff to avoid saying “yes” on the phone: Believe it or not, the telemarketing laws allow scammers to use almost any response to their calls against you. Train yourself and your staff to never say “yes,” “correct,” “I agree,” or similar phrases to unknown callers. Phone recordings can easily be changed to make it sound like you're agreeing to make a purchase when doing so was never your intent.
  • Consider recording incoming calls: To better protect yourself, record all incoming calls if you ever need to challenge a scammer later in court. Just make sure to take all appropriate steps to ensure your recording is made legally. A simple statement like, “Before you continue, I should tell you this call is being recorded,” is usually sufficient. Check the privacy laws in your state to make sure. In some cases, this may be enough to scare the scammer away.
  • Designate only certain staff to interact with outside contacts: Consider designating one or two people who have the authority to work with outside callers, as well as mail, email, or faxes concerning businesses matters. Train the designated employees to be aggressive in spotting potential scams and to take a step back without fear of reprisal if something looks or sounds fishy
  • Check the BBB: Always check the calling company’s reputation out for free on the Better Business Bureau’s website.
  • Inspect your invoices: Consider implementing a purchase order review system to ensure you are only paying for services you requested.Always investigate invoices that look suspicious or unfamiliar before paying them. Even invoices from legitimate companies with whom you do business can contain errors or be duplicates of previous invoices.
  • File a Complaint: If you suspect you have been contacted by a scammer or start getting bogus bills, file complaints with both the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint and with the BBB.

While you can never be sure of exactly how the scammer gets your information, they usually target businesses that already have legitimate listings in business directories, such as the Yellow Pages, in order to make the ploy seem more plausible. However, the employee taking the call has no way of knowing that the person calling or sending an invoice is not associated with the real listing.

“Businesses and other organizations should train their staff to hang up on cold calls about business directory services,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection in a press release. “Report them to the FTC. We can pursue these cases even if the scammers hide in another country.”