This article is a reprint of Wise Bread’s contribution to OPEN Forum from American Express — where small business owners can get advice from experts and share tips with each other.
Con artists are constantly bombarding us with bills that look like official government mail. It is one of the most effective scams, and there’s a good chance you are already a victim.
“33% of all businesses that receive bills in the mail for products or services they never asked for actually pay the bills,” said Robert Siciliano, an identity theft expert and author of The Safety Minute.
Fake bills are especially convincing when disguised as government mail. For example, here’s a picture of a fraudulent letter I received from the “Business Filing Division”
It looks just like a real California state form. Using official language and citations to actual law, the letter warns that my business will be suspended if I didn’t pay $239 to update my company’s information with the state of California. (California does require businesses to periodically update their information, but it only costs $20, not $239.)
After almost falling for this scam, I reached out to experts and other victims of government mailing scams to learn more about how it works. Here’s a list of their best advice on:
Most of these fake government letters share the following tricky features:
1. Everything looks official
These fake letters have official-looking seals, quote real regulations, and contain government forms that look like the real thing.
“I’m a designer, and so I can usually spot the difference right away between a real government document and a spurious one. But often times they’re very close! I have a grudging respect for how well these sales letters are designed to look like government notices.” – Matt Kirkland, Brand New Box.
2. They have your correct information
Just because they have your correct information doesn’t mean the letter is legitimate. A lot of your professional and personal information are part of the public record. It is easy for scammers to pick info from online databases and go to work. – Alexis A. Moore, Survivors in Action.
“Since your state filings are public records, they time the mailings to coincide with your corporation’s actual renewal dates.” – Kate Lister, author of Undress For Success.
3. Offering a semi-legitimate service
“Some of these companies offer a legitimate service that is actually required by State Law. However, they do not offer this service in a forthright manner.” – Lisa Nguyen esq, Proviso Law Group.
4. Sneaky disclaimers
“The mailings generally contain disclaimers required by law, such as ‘This is not an invoice.’ However they can still be deceptive if prepared in a format similar to a state document such as an annual report.” – John Meyer, Company Corporation.
Even when disclaimers are attached, they are sometimes printed in small gray letters, hidden among a sea of legal jargon, or printed on parts of the letter that is likely to be discarded. – Issamar Ginzberg, Entrepreneur of the Year.
5. Prey on your fear of government and obedience to authority
“The letter language didn’t feel right. It was vague and stressed a deadline. It preyed on a fear that one is delinquent on a government related fee.” – Blaine Ung, co-founder of WebinarHero.
“I got accustomed to writing checks to the government in order to get the LLC set up. Just when I thought that the numerous fees were done with, I got a letter in the mail exactly as you described. I was furious that I was going to have to pay $325 each year as another cost of doing business.” – Taylor Brown, lead software architect for YouNeedABudget.
6. Targeting the most vulnerable people
“What makes this insidious is that they are preying on new business owners who are probably excited to get their business off the ground, almost at any cost.” – Russ Hearl, co-founder of Sherpa Travel Exchange.
7. Deceptive addresses
They are set up in virtual office parks located in prestigious business buildings. The addresses are in the state capital to avoid raising red flags. – Christine Durst, co-author of The 2-Second Commute.
8. Official sounding names
They use important names like “Corporate Compliance Filings,” “Board of Business Center,” “Annual Filing Division,” “Business Filing Division,” “Compliance Annual Minutes Board,” “Federal Clearing House,” “Department of Business Minutes,” “Department of Business Compliance,” etc.
1. Google the phone number and payment address
“I did a Google search of the phone number to see if it led to a government Website; instead I found numerous postings that the number I searched belongs to an organization that scams business owners out of money. Thank goodness for these public forums and for the folks that take the time to post in them.” – Caroline Callaway, Bolt Public Relations.
2. Look for official consumer alerts
Check your state’s official website for consumer alerts. Most likely your scam has already been reported (see official state websites for all 50 states). – Nicole Winger, spokesperson for CA Secretary of State.
3. Your accountant or lawyer may help for free
“I never charge clients for asking questions. I thank them and make them feel good for bringing it to my attention before taking action so that they feel good about contacting me whenever another similar question comes up.” – Michael T. Hanley, CPA at Merl & Hanley.
“Generally, I don’t charge my client for looking at a document like this if they hired me to set up the LLC or Corporation.” – Lisa Nguyen esq, Proviso Law Group.
4. Set reminders in accounting or calendaring software
Enter your schedule of required government payments into your accounting software. By setting up reminders in advance, you can quickly verify whether you are late for a payment. – Dawn Tulman, ToiBocks.
If you have made payments to the real government agency in the past, the agency’s mailing information should already be in your accounting software’s database. The fact that you have to create a new payee profile for this new “bill” should raise red flags. – Rick Smith, Chefs Resource.
5. Create an official “accounts payable list”
“We have an official Accounts Payable list. Anything not on that list is required to be forwarded to me (president of the company) for review.” – Ken Wisnefski, Webimax.
6. Use a legitimate third-party service
I registered my LLC through the Company Corporation. My service package gives me unlimited access to their toll-free customer service hotline. When I asked about the dubious letter I received, they immediately identified it as a scam. Their website also has a helpful scam alert section.
Several other companies provide legitimate incorporation and business registration services. For example, Denise LaBuda, founder of Money Wizdom, also got excellent help from Mycorporation.com when she received the same fake government solicitation.
7. Join a community
Don’t reinvent the wheel. Other business owners have received the same scam letters and have already done the research. Joining communities like the Rotary Club, your local Chamber of Commerce, blog communities, or online business forums give you access to a large reservoir of collective experiences.
Membership in these communities can also open many doors. When I did research on this scam, I identified myself as a contributor to the American Express Open Forum and Wise Bread community. I received a torrent of responses, including immediate follow-ups from the California Secretary of State and the IRS.
Should you contact law enforcement?
“Depending on how savvy the scammers are, it may be difficult for law enforcement to tackle from a resource perspective. While there are a number of state and federal rules and regulations that can be called into play, the reality is that most won’t have much of an effect since the potential for enforcement is so low.” – Edi Goodman, chief privacy officer of Identity Theft 911.
Organizations that help
There are non-profit victim advocacy groups that can help you file complaints. “Reporting crime and knowing what to look for in a scam is difficult. We have volunteers eager to assist anyone who is in need at no charge.” – Alexis A. Moore, Survivors in Action.
Contact your credit card company
If you paid by check or money transfer you can probably kiss that money goodbye. However, if you paid by credit or charge card, you may be able to dispute the charges. – Shawn Mosch, Co-founder of ScamVictimsUnited.
These government solicitation scams often target the following groups:
- Business owners: Notice offers to update your company information, file your corporate minutes, renew your business registration, or help with other record-keeping requirements.
- Taxpayers: Scammer tempts you with a fake tax refund or scares you with a delinquency notice.
- Property owners: Letter tells you that you’re eligible for lower property taxes if you submitted to an official reassessment of your property’s value.
- Licensed professionals such as realtors, cosmetologists, brokers: You get a bill for renewing your license, along with a stern warning that failure to pay will result in revocation of your license.
- Employers: Letter tries to sell you employment posters required for the workplace. Usually these posters can be downloaded for free from official government websites.
Beyond monetary loss, there are many other reasons why you should worry about these scams.
Marked as a mark
If you respond to one letter, you might be marked as an “easy target” and receive additional – and perhaps more dangerous – solicitations in the future.
They might be after your identity
“The scammers are often looking for personal data as well as bogus fees. They’ll use the info for ‘true ID’ thefts, which means setting up credit accounts in your name and making other mischief.” – James Walsh, editor of Scams & Swindles: How to Recognize and Avoid Internet Era Rip-offs.
You miss a real government deadline
Some of these scams “help” you fulfill a real government requirement at an extremely inflated price. But just because they are charging you a high fee is no guarantee that they will do a good job.
In one recent California case, a company charged victims $175 to help them file corporate records. However, the company didn’t bother asking the victims for the right information, and instead filed fictitious corporate records on the victims’ behalf.
Before you pay another “bill” from the government, check your state’s official website for the real requirements and deadlines:
If you have received these fraudulent letters in the past, please share your experiences in the comments. Search engines will pick up your story and make it easier for other people to identify these scams.