Thank you to everyone who attended and supported Copacabana, A Sizzling Summer Night. We had a blast and hope you did too! Thanks for making the night such a success.
As a small business owner, there are a number of scams you need to be aware of designed to steal your money and harm your company. The Federal Trade Commission is bringing you a series highlighting these scams and what to do to protect your business. We’re kicking off this series with a focus on a scam involving unordered office supplies.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the nation’s consumer protection agency. The FTC investigates and sues companies and people for unfair or deceptive acts or practices that target individual consumers or small businesses like yours. With its headquarters in Washington, D.C., and eight regional offices, including in Cleveland, the agency is well-positioned throughout the country to learn about scams and deceptive advertising affecting the local community. The FTC also has a database of more than 13 million complaints filed by consumers that it uses to determine trends in scams and which scams are affecting the most consumers. This information helps prioritize who the FTC should be investigating and can then be used to educate consumers on how to avoid the trending scams.
In addition to preventing scams and deceptive advertising, the FTC also works to keep consumers’ data safe. The FTC ensures that companies that collect information from consumers only use the information in ways that consumers expect and that the companies take appropriate precautions to keep consumer information safe from hackers.
The FTC also spearheads National Consumer Protection Week, a time to help people understand their consumer rights and make well-informed decisions about money, which is running now until March 10 this year.
In conjunction with National Consumer Protection Week, staff from the FTC’s East Central Region will discuss, in this and future articles in this series, some of the scams and deceptive practices affecting businesses. Some of these tactics have been around forever but continue to make millions for scammers, while others are cutting-edge and the full impact hasn’t yet been seen. We will also talk about how to keep data secure and what to do in the event of a breach. Stick with us and your customers and your bottom-line will be grateful.
Scam: Unordered Merchandise
The first scam to tackle is what we call the “unordered merchandise” scam. It typically starts with a schmoozy call to an unsuspecting small business or nonprofit. Sometimes the caller claims to be “confirming” an existing order, “verifying” an address, or offering a “free” catalog or sample. Then comes the supplies surprise—unordered merchandise arriving at the company’s doorstep followed by high-pressure demands to pay up. When business owners refuse to pay, the scammers may claim to have audio recordings that prove the order was placed, but never come forward with the purported “proof.” The scammers may also have the birthdate of one of the employees as “proof” that the employee agreed to the merchandise, when, in reality, the employee was conned into giving their birthdate during the initial call. Sometimes the scammer will insist on payment, but offer a “discount” of less than the invoice amount.
In one recent case, FTC attorneys in Cleveland successfully sued a group of businesses and individuals for sending and billing for unordered merchandise. The defendants’ telemarketers called organizations and used deceptive tactics to get employee names—usually someone in the maintenance department—and delivery addresses. The next step: a seemingly innocuous conversation in which the defendants’ telemarketers offered to send a catalog, a small promotional gift (like a knife or gift card), and sometimes a sample of products. The defendants then shipped light bulbs and cleaning supplies to the business or organization, following up with high-priced invoices for those supplies, listing the employee’s name on the invoice as having ordered them.
If a business or nonprofit paid an invoice, the defendants would send more merchandise and more invoices, often using different company names (although they were all part of the same organization). When challenged, the defendants would try to bluff or trick victims into paying for the goods anyway. For example, they would argue that the fact that an employee had accepted the promotional gift showed that the employee also must have ordered the supplies. The defendants took more than $58 million from businesses and nonprofits just between 2010 and 2014.
Here are five tips for your company or nonprofit group when it comes to protecting yourself against an office supply scam:
Tip No. 1: Keep unordered merchandise but don’t pay for it. If your business receives merchandise no one on your staff ordered, the law says you don’t have to return it and the vendor can’t legally collect on it. You don’t have to pay for it, even if you used the item before you realized it was unordered.
Tip No. 2: Your best defense is a trained staff. Spend five minutes at a staff meeting educating your team about the signs of a supply scam. Caution them about fake friendly callers who worm their way in by claiming to have done business with you before or who say they have an “urgent” need to speak to someone in your maintenance department. If more than one person answers the main phone at your business, post a warning nearby about supply scams. For nonprofits, let volunteers know that fraudsters target charities, churches and community groups, too.
Tip No. 3: Consolidate contacts. Supply scammers try to exploit the fact that small businesses aren’t likely to have purchasing departments. But you can still designate one person to respond to all inquiries about office supplies, “free” offers or “existing” orders. Putting one person in charge—especially a staffer with a well-calibrated baloney detector—can help protect your company from con artists.
Tip No. 4: Investigate every invoice. Don’t pay a penny unless you know the bill is for items you or your staff actually authorized. If someone tries to pressure you into paying for unordered merchandise, complain to the FTC and Ohio’s Attorney General and let the pushy caller know you’re on to them.
Tip No. 5: Bookmark the FTC’s site on protecting small businesses. The FTC’s website features resources to help protect your company. For example, Small Business Scams clues you into typical tactics of business-to-business cons.
The FTC works to prevent fraudulent, deceptive and unfair business practices in the marketplace and to provide information to help consumers spot, stop and avoid them. You can file a complaint online at www.ftc.gov/complaint or by telephone at 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357).
Have we gotten too casual on the phone? Are we being lazy when communicating with clients or prospective clients? Don’t just phone it in—or maybe you can! Give your image a facelift by taking these quick and easy actions toward improved phone communication.
But what about the rest of us with similar needs but no deep pockets to pull all that off? Are we doomed to endure the mediocre or amateurish image we’ve created by what we’ve done or not done since we started our businesses?
Not to worry. Here are five simple and easy phone tactics to overhaul your image. So easy you can phone them in. They require no investment—only some creativity and effort. Start small and simple. See how many you can add to your small business tool kit and start using them immediately.
Simple and easy tactic No. 1: Personalize you voice mail greeting
Most small businesses use a voice mail greeting when they can’t answer incoming calls. This message might be the first impression a prospect or new customer gets of the company’s style and values. And it might reinforce those impressions with repeat callers. Listen to your voice mail greeting like a caller would. How do you feel about the business and the people running it? Do you want to do business with them?
What kind of impressions does this recorded message cast?
“Your call is being forwarded to an automated voice messaging system … 475 338-0298 is not available … “
Probably not favorable. More like lazy, dumb and cheap. How simple to invest a few minutes to personalize that greeting?
“Hi, this is Ben Dover with Glitztronics. Please leave a message and I’ll get back to you by the end of the day.”
Job done—concise, courteous and helpful. Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it?
Simple and easy tactic No. 2: Listen to what callers hear
So, what do callers hear when you do answer the phone? What kind of an image does your greeting cast? “Hi …” is a good start, but it needs help: “Hi, this is Ben with Glitztronics …” is better, but “Hi … this is Ben Dover with Glitztronics. How can I help you today?” really works well. Which one casts the best image of Ben? Which is the most like yours?
Simple and easy tactic No. 3: Turn a problem into a pleasure
What do you say when a caller needs help, asks a question or just says, “Thanks”? I do have a problem with responding, “No problem”, which seems to be most everyone’s default response these days. Simply say, “You’re welcome” instead. And even better is, “My pleasure.” While the shift from “problem” to “pleasure” is subtle, it does say something about your attitude.
Simple and easy tactic No. 4: Review how you place out-going calls
When you place an out-going call, what do they hear first after answering? Consider a concise and courteous statement such as, “Hi … this is Ben Dover from Glitztronics … Is this a good time to discuss next week’s meeting?”
And if the other person says it’s not a good time, no need to apologize. If you knew that, you wouldn’t have called and also, remember, they picked up the phone in the first place.
Because most people have some version of Caller ID installed on their phone, make sure the read out isn’t lame like “unknown caller”, “not available” or blank. Those all signal a robo or spam call. Would you answer a call like that yourself? If I don’t recognize the name or number, I let the call go into voice mail where they hear my concise and courteous message. Most don’t leave a message, which tells me they were robo or spammers.
Simple and easy tactic No. 5: Please leave a (complete) message
When you do leave a voice message, what do they hear? “Hi … This is Ben returning your call” Is a good start, but not enough to really be helpful. “Hi … This is Ben Dover with Glitztronics returning your call. I can meet with you Tuesday at 10 or Thursday at 3. Let me know what works for you at 459-703-3162.’ While longer, it’s a more courteous and complete communication.
Little effort, big results
As you’ve seen, it doesn’t take much time or effort to phone in your image-casting make-over tactics that differentiate your business from the competition who don’t think it matters or have even bothered to try.
Everything your customers and prospects hear over the phone should be on purpose and for a purpose. What kind of an image-casting score would they give your business?
Phil Stella runs Effective Training & Communication, www.communicate-confidently.com, 440-449-0356, and empowers business leaders to communicate confidently. A popular trainer and executive coach on workplace communications and sales presentations, he is also on the Cleveland faculty of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Initiative.
Good employees can be the most important ingredients in a successful business. But finding and hiring good employees can be among the most challenging aspects of running a small or growing company.
Numerous federal and state laws govern the various processes of soliciting employees, including advertising, interviewing and hiring. If you don’t follow the rules, you may find yourself as the defendant in a lawsuit over your hiring (or non-hiring) practices. Or, you may end up being stuck with a very costly and unproductive employee who you have trouble firing.
Employers are subject to many laws requiring equal employment opportunity and prohibiting discrimination in employment, which can include Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Pay Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1966, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, the American with Disabilities Act and numerous other federal and state laws.
You probably have many questions that you would like to ask a prospective employee. But certain questions can only get you in trouble (yes, you can trip over many laws in an interview). The following are examples of questions you should NOT ask:
How old are you?
Do you have any disabilities?
Are you pregnant?
Are you married with kids?
Have you ever been arrested?
What is your religious affiliation?
What is your sexual orientation?
Focus on questions relating to the skill and experience of the candidates and the qualifications needed to perform the job.
Once you find the “perfect” candidate for the job, you should perform a background and reference check before extending an offer. Ideally the prospective employee will sign your “background check permission form” which allows you to get reference information from prior employers and even do a credit check. Before formally requesting information in writing from a prior employer, make sure the prospective employee gives you permission to do so. However, you may find that previous employers are relucant to give much information, often confirming only the employment, position and maybe salary. (And yes, your company should have a similar policy with respect to your departing employees.)
From a fact checking perspective, think about checking out school experience (some people embellish their degrees or where they went to school); talk to the candidate’s former supervisor(s), if possible, who may provide more meaningful information than the company’s HR department; for sensitive jobs, check for felony convictions; and verify past employment (ensure the candidate actually worked at each of the companies listed, in the position listed, and check dates of employment).
Part 2 of this blog will offer helping hints for your hiring tool kit.
Many of you own your own business. Have you thought about what comes next? Both for you and the company? With respect to your business there are only three options: You can die still owning it, you can pass it on, or you can sell it. Many entrepreneurs fail to realize that without succession planning there is no value in the business.
There are four triggers that can create problems if not planned for in advance. What happens if the owner dies? What if the owner becomes permanently disabled? What happens when the owner leaves? And what if multiple owners cannot resolve their disagreements?
Succession planning calls for certain events to trigger a change, such as those in the preceding paragraph, and sets forth the method to determine the value of the company at the time of such triggering event. Succession planning also encourages the owner to remember to dress up the business for sale at a later date. The owner should start early in preparing both herself and the company for an eventual sale.
There are numerous steps in the selling process, from creating your team, finding a buyer, setting terms, determining the appropriate structure, financing, and so on. The key is to plan, in advance, not to wait for a triggering event to set the wheels in motion.
In order to best realize the value of your business, run it with the objective of someday selling it.
What an awesome experience I had on June 19, being sworn into the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States. It is very humbling to stand in front of nine justices in black robes in such a regal environment. My good fortune continued as I had the opportunity to have a brief one-on-one conversation with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. What a day!
As a business lawyer, an outsourced general counsel, I don’t expect to ever argue before the Court. However taking the oath to join the group of lawyers allowed to practice before the nation’s highest court was an opportunity not to be missed.
By Alex Gertsburg
The Gertsburg Law Firm Co., LPA
(Reprinted with permission)
Although many people think of federal trademark or service mark protection, if your mark will not be used in interstate commerce you may want to consider an Ohio filing. Registration of a mark provides two things. First, it provides actual public notice. By registering the mark with a central filing agency, the mark is available for public scrutiny. This benefits both the owner, who seeks exlusive use of the mark, and a potential filer who seeks to ensure that her mark does not conflict with a mark already in use. Second, registration of a mark might be used as evidence in the event an infringement claim is pursued by the registrant.
A trademark is “any word, name, symbol, device, or combination of any word, name, symbol, or device, that is adopted and used by a person to identify and distinguish the goods of that person, including a unique product, from the goods of other persons, and to indicate the source of the goods, even if that source is unknown.”
A service mark is “any word, name, symbol, device, or combination of any word, name, symbol, or device, that is adopted and used by a person to identify and distinguish the services of that person, including a unique service, from the services of other persons and to indicate the source of the services, even if the source is unknown.”
While a mark may meet either of these definitions, there are several restrictions to consider first. Any mark that consists of or comprises any of the following will not be accepted for filing:
- Immoral, deceptive or scandalous matter;
- Matter that may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons living or dead, institutions, beliefs or national symbols, or bring them into contempt or disrepute;
- The flag or coat of arms or other insignia of the United States, or of any state or municipality, or of any foreign nation, or any simulation thereof;
- The name, signature or portrait of any living individual, except with her written consent;
- A mark which, when applied to the goods or services, is “merely descriptive,” “deceptively misdescriptive,” or is primarily geographically descriptive;
- A mark that is primarily merely a surname;
- A mark that resembles a trademark or service mark previously used in Ohio by another entity and is not abandoned, and is likely to cause confusion, mistake or is deceptive; or
- A mark that resembles a mark registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office by another entity and is not abandoned, and which is likely to cause confusion, mistake or is deceptive.
In addition to a signed security agreement, a security interest is not enforceable unless the secured party has given value, such as if the secured party provides the debtor with a loan, or sells or otherwise delivers goods to the debtor.
A security agreement may provide for past, current or future loans that a creditor may make to a debtor. With the debtor’s consent, an existing creditor might obtain collateral for a past loan, and the earlier loan provides the necessary value. A security interest may also secure a loan made at the same time the security interest is taken. In addition, the security agreement may specify that the collateral will secure a loan that will be made in the future. If the creditor makes a binding commitment to make a future loan, that binding commitment provides the necessary value. However, if the creditor merely retains the option to make a future loan, value is not given and the security interest does not attach until the future loan is made.