AKRON-Tire dealers long have used telephone books to market their businesses. But the reliance dealers have on the yellow pages can make them especially susceptible to bogus-bill and cloaked-solicitation schemes that masquerade as legitimate invoices for ads in local directories.
The scams rake in an estimated $500 million from unwary advertisers each year, according to the Yellow Pages Publishers Association (YPPA), a non-profit organization representing the Bell operating companies and more than 160 independent publishers.
The solicitations can be convincing and deceptive. Many have the appearance of an invoice containing the words ``yellow pages'' and the well-known ``walking fingers'' logo. Neither is trademarked.
Some solicitations even attempt to lead business owners into thinking they are being billed for a listing that already appeared in a directory with phrases such as ``renewal payment stub'' and ``directory listing renewal invoice,'' the YPPA warned.
Most ask for a modest payment of between $100 and $200 so as not to arouse suspicion.
``Many `bogus' publishers may even publish a directory, but they rarely if ever receive the wide distribution of legitimate directories,'' the YPPA said.
Awareness of these types of scams was almost nonexistent last year. A YPPA survey conducted last May reported only 17 percent of advertisers among the top 10 revenue-producing ad categories said they had heard of the practice. Of those that had heard of the scams, 57 percent said they were made aware because of a personal experience.
Prompted by those numbers, the YPPA launched a nationwide campaign to increase advertiser awareness of what it calls ``bogus billing.''
In 1994, the association began local public and media awareness campaigns and established a toll-free number, (800) 841-0639, to answer questions about suspected bogus bills and to report scams.
The hotline, however, functions more as an information clearing-house, said Richard Greenwell, coordinator of the YPPA Bogus Yellow Pages Program.
``We can't get your money back,'' he said. ``If you've already paid it, it's a done deal.''
The YPPA's program has helped. The awareness level among advertisers has risen from 16 to 48 percent in one year, Mr. Greenwell said.
The Federal Trade Commission advises dealers who believe they have become a victim of a misrepresentation scheme to contact their local postmaster or postal inspector or the Chief Postal Inspector at the U.S. Postal Service in Washington, D.C.