5 Tips from the FTC on Avoiding Office Supply Scams

As a small business owner, there are a number of scams you need to be aware of designed to steal your money and harm your company. The Federal Trade Commission is bringing you a series highlighting these scams and what to do to protect your business. We’re kicking off this series with a focus on a scam involving unordered office supplies.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the nation’s consumer protection agency. The FTC investigates and sues companies and people for unfair or deceptive acts or practices that target individual consumers or small businesses like yours. With its headquarters in Washington, D.C., and eight regional offices, including in Cleveland, the agency is well-positioned throughout the country to learn about scams and deceptive advertising affecting the local community. The FTC also has a database of more than 13 million complaints filed by consumers that it uses to determine trends in scams and which scams are affecting the most consumers. This information helps prioritize who the FTC should be investigating and can then be used to educate consumers on how to avoid the trending scams.

In addition to preventing scams and deceptive advertising, the FTC also works to keep consumers’ data safe. The FTC ensures that companies that collect information from consumers only use the information in ways that consumers expect and that the companies take appropriate precautions to keep consumer information safe from hackers.

The FTC also spearheads National Consumer Protection Week, a time to help people understand their consumer rights and make well-informed decisions about money, which is running now until March 10 this year.

In conjunction with National Consumer Protection Week, staff from the FTC’s East Central Region will discuss, in this and future articles in this series, some of the scams and deceptive practices affecting businesses. Some of these tactics have been around forever but continue to make millions for scammers, while others are cutting-edge and the full impact hasn’t yet been seen. We will also talk about how to keep data secure and what to do in the event of a breach. Stick with us and your customers and your bottom-line will be grateful.

Scam: Unordered Merchandise

The first scam to tackle is what we call the “unordered merchandise” scam.  It typically starts with a schmoozy call to an unsuspecting small business or nonprofit. Sometimes the caller claims to be “confirming” an existing order, “verifying” an address, or offering a “free” catalog or sample. Then comes the supplies surprise—unordered merchandise arriving at the company’s doorstep followed by high-pressure demands to pay up. When business owners refuse to pay, the scammers may claim to have audio recordings that prove the order was placed, but never come forward with the purported “proof.” The scammers may also have the birthdate of one of the employees as “proof” that the employee agreed to the merchandise, when, in reality, the employee was conned into giving their birthdate during the initial call. Sometimes the scammer will insist on payment, but offer a “discount” of less than the invoice amount.

In one recent case, FTC attorneys in Cleveland successfully sued a group of businesses and individuals for sending and billing for unordered merchandise. The defendants’ telemarketers called organizations and used deceptive tactics to get employee names—usually someone in the maintenance department—and delivery addresses. The next step: a seemingly innocuous conversation in which the defendants’ telemarketers offered to send a catalog, a small promotional gift (like a knife or gift card), and sometimes a sample of products. The defendants then shipped light bulbs and cleaning supplies to the business or organization, following up with high-priced invoices for those supplies, listing the employee’s name on the invoice as having ordered them.

If a business or nonprofit paid an invoice, the defendants would send more merchandise and more invoices, often using different company names (although they were all part of the same organization). When challenged, the defendants would try to bluff or trick victims into paying for the goods anyway. For example, they would argue that the fact that an employee had accepted the promotional gift showed that the employee also must have ordered the supplies. The defendants took more than $58 million from businesses and nonprofits just between 2010 and 2014.

Here are five tips for your company or nonprofit group when it comes to protecting yourself against an office supply scam:

Tip No. 1: Keep unordered merchandise but don’t pay for it. If your business receives merchandise no one on your staff ordered, the law says you don’t have to return it and the vendor can’t legally collect on it. You don’t have to pay for it, even if you used the item before you realized it was unordered.

Tip No. 2: Your best defense is a trained staff. Spend five minutes at a staff meeting educating your team about the signs of a supply scam. Caution them about fake friendly callers who worm their way in by claiming to have done business with you before or who say they have an “urgent” need to speak to someone in your maintenance department. If more than one person answers the main phone at your business, post a warning nearby about supply scams. For nonprofits, let volunteers know that fraudsters target charities, churches and community groups, too.

Tip No. 3: Consolidate contacts. Supply scammers try to exploit the fact that small businesses aren’t likely to have purchasing departments. But you can still designate one person to respond to all inquiries about office supplies, “free” offers or “existing” orders. Putting one person in charge—especially a staffer with a well-calibrated baloney detector—can help protect your company from con artists.

Tip No. 4: Investigate every invoice. Don’t pay a penny unless you know the bill is for items you or your staff actually authorized. If someone tries to pressure you into paying for unordered merchandise, complain to the FTC and Ohio’s Attorney General and let the pushy caller know you’re on to them.

Tip No. 5: Bookmark the FTC’s site on protecting small businesses. The FTC’s website features resources to help protect your company. For example, Small Business Scams clues you into typical tactics of business-to-business cons.

The FTC works to prevent fraudulent, deceptive and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop and avoid them. You can file a complaint online at www.ftc.gov/complaint or by telephone at 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357).  

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  • Next up: 5 Ways to Build a Competitive Benefits Package
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  • 5 Ways to Build a Competitive Benefits Package


    A benefits package can be an integral part of retaining your qualified employees while keeping them productive and satisfied. It can also help you compete for talent and be viewed as an employer of choice. Here are top five things to consider when building a competitive benefits package:

    1. Comprehensive Coverage – Fully integrated benefits protect your employees and keep them satisfied. Combining health coverage with other specialty products, like dental, life, disability, vision and more, provides your employees with the best coverage at an affordable rate for you and them.

    2. Single-carrier Advantage – Working with one company for employee benefits means zero hassle. This alleviates the need to coordinate customer service or resources with multiple providers. Plus, employees will have consistent communications and tools that make it simple to understand their benefits.

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    4. Extensive Network Options – When employees need care, they shouldn’t have to look far. Networks with a statewide or even national presence, in addition to high-quality facilities and providers, can make all the difference.

    5. Local Sales and Services – As a smaller business, you understand the impact of keeping things local. Not having to coordinate with sales and customer service teams all over the country or even overseas can make a big difference in the experience your business and your employees have.

    By partnering with Medical Mutual, you can get all five and more—from our comprehensive health and wellness programs, to various network options and local Sales and services based right here in Ohio. To learn more about the health and specialty options available exclusively through the COSE MEWA, please contact your broker or Medical Mutual Sales representative.

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  • 5 Ways to Safeguard Your IP

    The intellectual property your business creates is extremely valuable. Here are five steps you can take to protect it today that can help you avoid a costly defense in the future.

    The intellectual property you and your business create is a vital asset. But too many small business owners aren’t doing as much as they can to protect their IP simply because they view such defense as an unnecessary expense. Others fail to protect it because they aren’t sure about how profitable it might be to protect these ideas. While it’s true that creating and maintaining a durable IP portfolio can be costly, the failure to do so can be even more expensive when others try to copy or steal your IP.

    The old adage of “the best defense is a strong offense” certainly applies to the world of IP, but it’s also important to understand IP can be employed both offensively and defensively. Investing a little bit now to build up your IP defense will pay off over time if you’re ever in a position where you need to defend it. This investment also has the added benefit of making your IP more valuable.

    So, how do you go about initiating the protection of your IP assets? Here are five examples to think about.

    • Get educated. Educate yourself on the basics of copyrights, trademarks, trade secrets and patents.
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    • Don’t delay. Identify your patentable technology including products as well as business processes. With today's first-to-file system, the sooner you file a patent application, the better—as such an application holds your place in line.
    • Get it in writing. Ensure that any written contract or agreement (including employment and manufacturing agreements) thoroughly and explicitly protects (and defines ownership of) your intellectual property.
    • Talk to a professional. Contact an attorney to learn more about what means of protection might be available to your brand, product, know-how, original work and more.

    Properly protecting IP is a valuable process. If you take the steps to safeguard your IP today, you could avoid a costly defense later.

    Kevin Soucek is an attorney at Walter | Haverfield who focuses his practice on intellectual property. He can be reached at ksoucek@walterhav.com or at 216-619-7885.

    James Pingor is an attorney at Walter | Haverfield who focuses his practice on intellectual property. He can be reached at jpingor@walterhav.com or at 216-928-2984.
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    Have you heard of the COSE multiple employer welfare arrangement (MEWA), but you aren’t convinced this is the right health plan for your small business? Here are five reasons why you may want to consider it:

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    If you are reading this, you are likely already a member of COSE and realize the value of your membership. COSE has partnered with Medical Mutual to offer the COSE MEWA Health and Welfare Trust to help its small business members and their employees with the increasing cost of healthcare benefits.

    2.  Favorable rating of likeminded companies

    The way a MEWA works is by getting together a group of similar small business employers to pool their contributions in a self-contributing benefits plan for their employees. By pooling your contributions with other employers, you are better positioned to offer the best benefit package to your employees due to economies of scale. 

    3.  Strength of network

    Medical Mutual is well known for having the largest provider network in Ohio. With a COSE MEWA plan, your employees will have access to major health systems across the state of Ohio including the recent addition of University Hospitals main campus and other facilities in Northeast Ohio.

    4.  Cost savings

    Since the COSE MEWA is not subject to certain state health insurance regulations and benefit mandates, this type of plan may be less expensive for your group than similar plans on the exchange. In addition, your rate will be determined by expanded criteria including medical history and gender to allow us to better tailor the costs to the unique characteristics of your group. 

    5.  Wellness benefits

    Through Medical Mutual, the COSE MEWA offers a comprehensive suite of wellness and disease management programs designed to promote healthy lifestyle behaviors. These wellness programs start with a health assessment to provide a baseline to help your employees better understand their health and identify risk factors for disease. Additional programs are available including the Health Resource Center on My Health Plan, fitness discounts, access to the QuitLine program for tobacco users and a WeightWatchers® reimbursement.

    To request a quote, contact your broker or visit our page.

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  • Next up: 5 Ways to End Workplace Dishonesty
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  • 5 Ways to End Workplace Dishonesty

    How well do you understand workplace dishonesty—the reasons behind it and the different forms it can take on? We are bringing you a deep dive on dishonesty and how to identify it—as well as five tips to preventing it from happening in the first place.

    As a small business, you should understand and be able to recognize the various types of workplace dishonesty. It is important to be proactive when it comes to addressing dishonesty because it not only costs businesses valuable time and resources, but it also has a negative impact on a company's bottom line and affects company morale—possibly leading to more dishonest behavior by other employees.

    Below are three reasons why workplace dishonesty may occur:

    Reason no. 1: Employee dissatisfaction. When an employee feels low morale or is dissatisfied with their job, the company management, or conditions in the workplace, they may engage in employee theft, misrepresentation of work hours on their time sheets, or slowing down production, among other things.

    Reason no. 2: Weak accountability systems. Do you have good checks and balance systems, accounting and inventory systems? If not, you risk employee dishonesty. If there is no fear of being caught, stealing becomes attractive and can easily occur.

    Reason no. 3: Disgruntled employees. Employees who believe they're underpaid or underappreciated may feel inclined to lie, cheat or steal.

    Workplace dishonesty can come in many forms, including the following.

    Form no. 1: Lying. Whether employees lie to their bosses, each other, or even to customers, they can cause a great deal of damage to a small business.

    Form no. 2: Misuse of company time. Employees who conduct personal business during company time are essentially being dishonest and can cause a company to lose money through their actions. This includes personal phones calls, social media or internet use (unless it’s connected to their jobs and approved), taking excessive breaks and more.

    Form no. 3: Absences under false pretenses. Excessive absences under false pretenses are also considered dishonest behavior. This can include abusing time off, vacation time, sick leave and personal days.

    Form no. 4: Other unethical conduct. This type of dishonesty can cover things like submitting incorrect time sheets, theft (account padding, embezzlement, stealing cash or merchandise, creating phantom vendors, etc), drug or alcohol abuse and more.

    The following tips can help you crack down and reduce dishonesty in your business.

    Tip no. 1: Address morale issues and any concerns regarding workplace dissatisfaction.

    Tip no. 2: Create systems for all accounting entries, petty cash receipts and inventory to monitor activity and prevent dishonesty.

    Tip no. 3: Nip possible dishonesty in the bud before you hire by doing background checks on resumes and candidates.

    Tip no.4: Keep a close eye on existing employees’ interactions with their supervisors, customers and other employees.

    Tip no. 5: Create a system of checks and balances and put these in writing. Include any repercussions that may accompany these behaviors (such as suspension, termination or legal action) and distribute written policies to all employees.

    President, SACS Consulting & Investigative Services, Speaker, Trainer, Corporate Security ExpertTimothy A. Dimoff, CPP, president of SACS Consulting & Investigative Services, Inc., is a speaker, trainer and author and a leading authority in high-risk workplace and human resource security and crime issues. He is a Certified Protection Professional; a certified legal expert in corporate security procedures and training; a member of the Ohio and International Narcotic Associations; the Ohio and National Societies for Human Resource Managers; and the American Society for Industrial Security. He holds a B.S. in Sociology, with an emphasis in criminology, from Dennison University. Contact him at info@sacsconsulting.com

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