How to Spot a ‘Who’s Who’ Scam
Beware vanity publishers, phony awards that ask you to pay for professional recognition
Congratulations! Through an unexpected email or phone call, you learn you’ve been tapped to be listed in a prestigious who’s who–type directory. But after patting yourself on the back, be prepared to reach for your wallet.
Some types of fraud exploit our fears; others entice us with the promise of easy money. Who’s who scams and related cons play on our egos, dangling the prospect of gratifying personal or business recognition.
Scammers spin multiple variations on this ploy, usually reaching out by email (although some send out old-fashioned letters) and invariably claiming to provide cachet and exposure for you or your business. Some impersonate legitimate biographical publishers such as Marquis Who’s Who. Others create phony business directories or fictitious awards.
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But they’re all after the same thing: your money. They’ll try to convince you to pay for the recognition or listing, often by purchasing a commemorative book or plaque. In a worst-case scenario, they use your payment information to siphon more cash from your bank account.
“I get them on my personal email, from people who think I want to celebrate myself and be part of a directory that doesn’t exist,” says Josh Planos, vice president of communications and public relations for the Better Business Bureau (BBB).
“The angles and the approaches have changed over time,” he adds, “but the sell is still very much of the same, which is that they need your personal and payment information.”
Economic anxiety can make the pitch more potent, warns John Breyault, vice president of the National Consumers League and director of the organization’s Fraud.org website.
“Anytime you have economic uncertainty as we have now, with inflation and news about a recession that may be coming, people are going to be worried about how they’re going to make ends meet,” he says. “If you’re worried about losing your job or you’re a small-businessperson struggling to stay afloat, people who come out and offer to help raise your profile may be an attractive proposition.”
These “vanity scams” fall into three basic categories.
Biographical directory scams
Who’s who guides have been around since the mid-19th century, and Marquis’ Who’s Who in America has been published continuously since 1899. But the words “who’s who” are in the public domain, which means anyone can use them, including less trustworthy operators that try to profit from the cachet the phrase carries or claim a connection to legitimate publishers.
“Unfortunately, the egregious and unscrupulous practice of claiming to be Marquis or affiliated with our organization is an ongoing issue,” says Erica Lee, CEO of Marquis Who’s Who.
Other scammers invent their own directories. In June, a Long Island woman pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges for stealing more than $1.5 million in a scam that preyed on older adults, promising to enshrine them in biographical references such as “The Remington Registry of Outstanding Professionals.”
Prosecutors said that from 2013 to 2018, Mara Ficarra, 57, of Southampton, New York, and a co-conspirator sent out mailings soliciting $14 checks from supposed honorees for delivery of “your 2 books and your plaque,” then used the routing and bank account information to produce fraudulent checks for larger amounts. Ficarra faces up to five years in prison.
Vanity award scams
You could be the owner of a small industrial shop in Michigan, the sensei of a karate school in California or a physician in Texas. People in all sorts of places and professions get targeted by emails congratulating them on winning a “best of” award in their community or field (as did all of the above, who filed reports with the BBB Scam Tracker).
There are plenty of genuine local business and professional awards, and they generally don’t cost anything. “Most organizations or people would be happy to receive something like that,” Breyault says. But if “you’re being asked to pay for the honor, that’s a red flag.”
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.