The support publishing scam
It is a basic instinct to protect our young. This applies to animals as well as humans and in the scheme of things, it probably comes directly after self-preservation – sometimes even before thoughts of one's own danger.
Preying on your good nature
So what more fertile ground could there be for a scam? The first rule for fraudsters is to ensure a meeting of minds with the victim. The prospective losers have to believe what they are told and agree to hand over money – this is what differentiates a scam from a mugging.
Earlier this month, I had to get my car repaired. The garage owner told me he had been phoned that morning to see if he would pay £299 to buy booklets for local primary schools that would tell pupils about the dangers of drugs. It was an unsolicited call and he had never heard of the firm.
Red flags flew up. There was enough in his one sentence description of the call to convince me his £299 would end up in the pockets of fraudsters.
Without my warning, he might have been a victim of a crime that has been around for decades but which gets very little publicity. The targets are small to medium sized businesses with the phone-based fraudsters often hitting on a relatively junior member of staff, asking for sums of money which might go almost unnoticed.
Welcome to world of so-called "support publishing". This is how it works.
A support publisher calls a business. The salesperson then engages the firm by discussing a problem such as child abuse or road accidents. It will often claim a link to a local newspaper or an online advertising agency which the business has used.
The patter goes: "Would you like to help in combating drug sales to children in your local community – and gain some publicity for your firm in the process?" How could the garage owner – or anyone else – say no to that?
The next line is to suggest sponsoring booklets that would be sent to local schools. These would have the firm's name clearly indicated. And it would only cost £199/£250/£299/£350 – never more than £500 as that might require higher level approval in some firms.
If the garage owner had handed over the £299, he might have heard nothing more. Or, if he was 'lucky' he would have received a dozen or so badly printed leaflets that he could distribute to local schools. Often these are direct rip-offs of legitimate publications.
What happens if you say no?
And if he had refused? Some support publishers move on to the next victim.
But some won't take no for an answer. They will invoice the firm, hoping the payment is approved. And a number go further – if businesses don't pay up, they threaten them with court action and bailiffs.
The Advertising Protection Agency, an organisation which warns about this fraud, estimates that there are at least 80 to 100 of these companies at any moment. A disproportionate number are based in the Manchester-Liverpool area, suggesting many are linked.
The Government's Insolvency Service regularly shuts them down in the public interest – but as soon as one is closed, another rapidly appears. The directors are often young people, disposable as far as those behind the scam are concerned.
Last month, Alderleys Limited, a company claiming to sell business-to-business advertising in an "online directory", as well as "safety and emergency services" booklets was wound-up in the public interest by the High Court in Manchester following an investigation by the Insolvency Service. There was no online directory and the booklets never materialised.
In the nine months this firm operated, it hoovered up £300,000. It threatened legal action against firms which did not pay up – even those who had refused to deal with it.
Also last month, the Insolvency Service closed Liverpool-based Excel Media Limited in the public interest. Excel cold-called businesses to coerce them into sponsoring advertising space on a website the company created entitled 'Emergency Service Press'.
Businesses were led to believe that their participation would result in their business financially supporting public services including the police, fire and ambulance services as well as the armed forces, local authorities and charities – which is quite a package!
Excel also promoted calendars and wall-planners with the firm's logo, as well as branded t-shirts. None of these ever existed. It took around £300,000 from trusting victims.
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