When Gwen Krenecki was paying bills for Lodi Iron Works, she was puzzled when she could find no record of U.S. Telecom in their system. She called her technology specialists, who confirmed the company has never worked for the iron casting company.
Yet in front of her seemed to be an invoice for $425, dated July 16.
"It looked just like an invoice, it looked just like a bill, it looked like if you didn't pay it you would lose a warranty," she said.
Lodi Iron Works was one of several businesses in Northern California targeted in what the Better Business Bureau is calling an invoice scam. The company sends out an advertisement for services that looks similar to an invoice, but doesn't clearly state it is a solicitation, making it seem like the business owes money, said Cailin Peterson, a communications specialist with the Better Business Bureau.
As a result, people have sent money to a P.O. box address in LaVerne, despite never having worked with the company, she said.
"The issue with the solicitation is it is an advertisement disguised as something else, like an invoice. There is no way to distinguish it," Peterson said.
When Krenecki realized it was not a company Lodi Iron Works uses, she sent the invoice to the Better Business Bureau and a copy to the police in LaVerne. Krenecki is relieved that she took the time to check on the company before writing a check.
"I bet these people are making a lot of money," she said. "I pay a lot of bills, and if you are busy enough, some people probably don't take the time to look."
Krenecki blames the appearance and confusing language at the top of the piece of paper for misleading people, because most businesses have the items listed. The solicitation reads: "Thank you for your business, this warranty covers preventative maintenance on all telecom systems, including telephone instruments, switches, routers & cabling."
After realizing it was not a real invoice, Krenecki attempted to contact the company. She said they insisted the bill was for technology her company uses. She also went to their website at www.us-telecom.com and described it as "cheesy."
U.S. Telecom did not respond to calls for comment Wednesday.
The BBB has recently had complaints from eight businesses in the Sacramento area, including Lodi Iron Works, Peterson said.
During the last 12 months, the BBB has received 491 complaints against U.S. Telecom, and that does not include any currently open or recently filed cases. The company has responded to more than 200 of those complaints, but has not changed the advertisement they are sending out, she said.
"The company said the invoices were not for services rendered, but instead was an offer for preventative maintenance for the year to come," Peterson said. "The problem is that's not disclosed anywhere."
The solicitations Peterson has seen from the company vary in price; sometimes it's $175, $350 or $425, she said. She has seen other similar "invoice scams," and advises people to check every bill before paying them.
"If business owners are not aware of these types of advertisements or these type of schemes, it is easy to say, 'We owe $350,' write a check and send it out," Peterson said.
The U.S. Postal Service requires any solicitations or advertisements that look like invoices or account statements to have one of following two disclaimers in all capital letters:
- "This is not a bill. This is a solicitation. You are under no obligation to pay the amount stated above unless you accept this offer."
- "This is a solicitation for an order of goods or services, or both, and not a bill, invoice or statement of account due. You are under no obligation to make any payments on account of this offer unless you accept this offer."
The U.S. Telecom ads did not have either one of those statements, which is against U.S. Postal Service regulations, Peterson said.
After contacting the BBB, Krenecki said she wanted other people and businesses in the Lodi area to be on the lookout for similar scams.
"I want people to know if you receive this, other people did too, and it should be discarded," Krenecki said.