A keepsake copy of one such publication will cost you up to $900. The companies say they make selections based on "humanitarian contribution" or "leadership and professional achievement," yet there's no mention of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett or other well-known philanthropists on the pages … just people who've made their living selling insurance, operating beauty salons or manufacturing ladies' clothing. The 2012 "Executives of the Year" for one registry are a retired business professor from a small Montana college and the director of a nonprofit in Chicago that helps immigrants from Asia and Eastern Europe.
The words "Who's Who" are in the public domain — any publisher can use them. There are old and reputable directories of that name that charge nothing and are truly discriminating in their selections. Some are published by professional organizations to cite notables in a specific occupation, say surgery or engineering.
But there's a whole group of less trustworthy ones that try to profit from the cachet the legit ones carry.
It's not that people listed in the vanity directories are necessarily undeserving of recognition; many are hard-working professionals making valuable contributions to society. It's just that the qualifying criteria may be less "outstanding" than what's suggested in the titles.
"In most cases," notes the Better Business Bureau, "the [publisher] doesn't turn down any nominee or entry." In fact, honorees are often recruited via mass-sent "congratulations" emails or phone calls in hopes that ego-stroking or hard-sell tactics will elicit the spending of big bucks on "memberships," commemorative plaques and/or souvenir copies.
The latest sales method, report some candidates: Telemarketers falsely claiming they are calling from Google Books. More accurately, a three-year-old registry is posted on Google Books, along with countless other publications.
Here's what else you should know if told you've been selected for one of these registries.
- Your credit card may be immediately charged — "before I even received forms" to submit a biography, writes one recent selectee. "They assured me it would cost nothing; the next month there was a $700-plus charge on my credit card."
• Many directories are touted for their usefulness in "networking" — especially important in this tough job market — but they typically aren't available in libraries or bookstores, only online.
• Callers may try to sell you by implying they have a "connection with well-known historical societies or projects," notes the Better Business Bureau. "Investigation has shown that in many cases, no connection exists."
• In promotional literature, a Library of Congress catalog card number may be prominently displayed. All that means is the publisher has applied to catalog the book; it's not an endorsement from the Library of Congress.
• The directories publish personal information such as email and home addresses and birthdates. These can easily be gleaned and used by identity thieves.
Not sure whether a notification you've received is from a reputable publication?
Ask questions like these:
• What's the selection process? How was I nominated, and for what specific accomplishments? If the answer is vague, suspect the publisher may have bought your name on a mailing list or found it elsewhere.
• Who else made the grade? Sorry, but can you really be considered among the nation's top executives for running a small store when Fortune 500 CEOs are ignored?
• Who writes your bio? Legit registries may ask for background and do their own write-up; vanity books turn the pen over to you.
• Must you pay more for better play? In legit books, honorees generally get similar-size write-ups. With vanity directories, extra paragraphs, pages and photos are often available for a price.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of Scam-Proof Your Life, published by AARP Books/Sterling.
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