Shady operators solicit payment for a plaque or other keepsake of the prize, typically a couple hundred dollars but sometimes ranging over $1,000, according to BBB data. They pitch it as good advertising for your business, but Breyault says that even if you do get something to hang on your wall, your money might be better spent on more far-reaching marketing, like online ads.
“Let’s face it, the companies that are offering these things are for-profit businesses,” he says. “Many of them simply want to give out as many commemorative plaques and awards as possible.”
Even if the “award” notification doesn’t ask for money, be wary if it requires you to click a link to claim the prize — it could be a phishing ploy to infect your device with malware that gives scammers access to personal information.
Business directory scams
Also called “Yellow Pages scams” because they sometimes involve impersonating the familiar directory brand, these frauds target small businesses with offers of a “free” listing or claims that it’s time to renew an existing one. Whether or not you agree, you’ll soon receive an invoice from the supposed publisher demanding payment, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
In one classic version of the ruse, con artists call a business and try to take advantage of secretaries or receptionists who pick up the phone, says Steve Baker, a former FTC official who now publishes the Baker Fraud Report, an online newsletter on consumer scams.
“They say, ‘We’re coming out with a new edition, so we just want to confirm your contact information and address,’ ” he says. The scammers then bill the company, saying the employee who answered the call authorized it — and counting on businesses getting so many small bills that they may not scrutinize them all before paying.
Recalcitrant targets can face intimidation, Baker adds. “Somebody says, ‘Hey, I did not authorize $1,000 for a listing in this directory,’ and they call the company.” The crooks are “primed for that — it’s their business model. They make threats that they’re going to sue you or that they’re going to ruin your business’s credit if you don’t pay.”
How to avoid vanity scams
Fraud experts say you can protect yourself against who’s who, fake award and directory scams with a few simple, straightforward precautions.
- Question anyone who offers you an honor out of the blue. Ask about the nomination process. Marquis Who’s Who, for example, requires candidates to fill out an application before they’re considered and follows up with a phone interview, says company CEO Erica Lee.
- Never pay to be honored. Being asked for money to get an award or be listed in a biographical guide is a big red flag. Legitimate who’s whos don’t charge for inclusion and they vet potential listees, Lee says.
- Check out the entity making the offer. Look for a Better Business Bureau listing, which will show if an outfit has a physical address and contact information and has any complaints against it. “It’s really important to have all that information at your disposal before you enter into any agreement,” the BBB’s Josh Planos says.
- Be careful about what information you provide. Whenever you give out personal or financial data, you’re taking a risk, and the damage can be difficult to undo. “We’ve talked to people who were playing cleanup duty years after the fact,” Planos says.
- Ask yourself whether you really need the promotion. In an age of search engines and social media, “why would you need to pay hundreds of dollars to be in a directory?” says John Breyault of the National Consumers League. “Your LinkedIn profile is likely already out there, and many businesses are on Facebook and Twitter and all these other places.”
- Report suspected scams. Fraud experts say that it’s important for people who become targets of scams to alert law enforcement agencies and consumer organizations. File a report with the FTC, post a complaint to the BBB’s Scam Tracker database and call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360.
Patrick J. Kiger is a contributing writer for AARP. He has written for a wide variety of publications, including the Los Angeles Times Magazine, Q, Mother Jones and the websites of the Discovery Channel and National Geographic.