Have you ever received a mysterious invoice for copier toner, printer ink or other office supply items, but can't remember when or why you ordered them? Well, that could be because you didn't order them at all and you are a target of office supply scammers, often referred to as "Toner Pirates" by the business technology industry.
Office supply scams are widespread and relatively common, yet many organizations still don't know that they exist, much less how to identify and avoid them. ScamsInc.com suggests that these scams have been in existence since the 1970's. With the estimated costs of the scams topping out over $200 million per year since 2000, it's time we draw attention to this issue.
Everyone is a Target
How do you determine whether or not you could be selected as a target by one or more of these scammers? It's simple: if you have a phone, you could become a target. In other words, almost everyone is a prospective target for toner pirates and office supply scammers. Vulnerability to these scams is not limited by industry or organization type, which is why it's important for offices everywhere to be vigilant, from corporations and trade associations, to legal and medical practices, to non-profit organizations and government agencies.
There are several typical tactics that scammers employ to fool organizations to take advantage of purchasing procedures and unsuspecting employees. They lie to get you to pay for items that your office didn't actually order, making sure that the items or services they provide are of poor quality, grossly overpriced, and/or basically worthless.
Top Office Supply Scam Strategies
The Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) article, "Avoiding Office Supply Scams," defines the most common types of office supply scams and ways you can protect yourself from them. Learn more about each of the three most common scams below:
1. Phony-Invoice Scams
Scammers who take this route aim to get the name or address of any one employee in order to bill an organization for goods or services that they never ordered. To do this, they will typically call your office asking for a name to complete an order that was never really placed. Or, they may call asking for the name of the person in charge of your company's advertising in publications like the Yellow Pages. When and if they obtain a name of a current employee at your company, they can put it on the fake invoice as the "authorized" buyer.
However, before sending the invoice, the scammer will send the un-ordered merchandise to make the highly inflated price less obvious when the invoice arrives and the goods have already been received and stocked. It is also more likely that someone will have already used the supplies before the invoice arrives, making it seem like you must pay for it since it's already been handled. Confusion and lack of awareness are a con artist's best friend, especially when it comes to this strategy, so be careful if someone calls your office asking for help completing an order, or saying their accounting department misplaced the name of the person in charge of a particular service or order.
2. The Pretender Scam
In this kind of scam. the caller pretends to be a representative of your regular supplier, or a replacement one. This way, they convince you that their products, services and prices are offered in the same manner as usual, creating the illusion that it would be normal for you to agree to placing or completing an order with them. The scammer hopes that prices, quantities, and brands will not be brought up. If any of these factors are mentioned, the con artist will waffle around it by saying things like:
- "We've supplied to you in the past, but it's been awhile."
- "The price is the same as last time."
- "Let me look into that and get back to you."
If a specific price is asked for, the scammer will give a quote that sounds reasonable for the entire quantity being ordered, but is actually the price for a single unit of that supply. For example, $19.95 in a carton of 10 would translate to $199.50. Other strategies for this scam include callers claiming that they are sending you a promotional item or catalog, but they're really misrepresenting themselves and trying to get personal information to bill you for unnecessary services and supplies.
3. Gift-Horse Scams
With this third type of office supply scam, the con artist will try to create doubt and mistrust within an organization and then use it to their own advantage. First, a caller tricks an unsuspecting employee into accepting a catalog, gift, promotional item, or some combination of the three. Once the office receives the goods, which they assume were sent free of charge, an invoice is delivered with that employee's name on it. Things escalate as the organization questions the employee, who denies ordering the items and grows increasingly nervous. The scheme works when the organization starts to doubt the employee, believing he mistakenly ordered something without permission or authorization, and that it must be paid for to cover his mistake.
These are the three most common office supply scams and, believe it or not, they are usually successful. After any one of them is executed, the scammer will resort bullying and negotiation to get anything they can out of you, even if it's just a "restocking fee" that they assess if you send the goods back to them. Since the supply items they use in their scams are so ridiculously overpriced, anything you pay could turn a profit for the scammers.So how can you protect yourself from these scammers? Next week, I'll discuss how to protect your business from falling prey to these frauds.