A federal judge has temporarily shut down an alleged Yellow Pages scam that targeted small businesses and nonprofits, including churches, bilking them out of millions of dollars.
The European-based scheme allegedly deceived victims into ordering and then paying for unwanted listings in online business directories.
In addition to stopping the allegedly deceptive practices, the court also froze the defendants’ assets. The FTC seeks to permanently stop the illegal practices and to require that the defendants provide refunds to their victims.
According to documents filed by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the defendants operate their scheme from Palma de Mallorca, Spain, using corporations based in England and the Netherlands. Since 2009, they have sent unsolicited faxes to churches, doctors’ and dentists’ offices, and local retailers in the United States, Canada, Australia, and possibly other countries.
Each fax sent to a U.S. business or nonprofit includes a name such as YellowPage-Illinois.com, depending upon the location of the organization, and a “walking fingers” logo similar to the one commonly associated with local yellow pages.
The FTC alleges that these faxed forms falsely suggest that organizations have a pre-existing relationship with the defendants. The forms contain information about the business or nonprofit, and a Yellow Page ID number, and instruct the recipient to confirm and update the information and sign and fax the form back by a certain deadline.
Buried in fine print at the bottom of the form is the only indication that the fax is a solicitation for new business and that organizations that return the form are ordering an $89 per month, two-year registration in the defendants’ online directory, payable a full year in advance. Many consumers do not see or read the fine print and instead sign and return the form, believing that they are merely updating their local yellow pages listing. Often the person who signs and returns the form is not authorized to purchase services on the business’s or nonprofit’s behalf.
According to the FTC, organizations that return the form then receive a faxed invoice seeking payment of $1,068 for 12 months of directory listings. They are directed to make payment to Yellow Page B.V. at a New York City address. The defendants often tell businesses or nonprofits that try to cancel that the cancellation period has expired, and that they intend to enforce the contract.
Organizations that refuse to pay receive faxes seeking late fees and threatening to refer the alleged debts to a collection agency and harm their company’s credit rating. In some instances, organizations pay the defendants simply to end the harassment.