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Fake Yellow Pages company scamming dentists

It starts with a bill.

It's a couple hundred dollars. Sometimes more. It's from a familiar-sounding company. Yellow Pages something.

Then it progresses. Threatening letters are sent using words like "collection agency" and "legal action" and "bad credit rating."

Phone calls to the company in question lead to murkier waters. Now there's a recording with a dental team member agreeing to the service in question.

Dentists across the country have the same story. And it's all a scam.

Fake companies posing as an online Yellow Pages service have been targeting businesses, including dentists, saying they owe money on an Internet phone book listing they allegedly purchased. The scam begins when the scammers cold call businesses, ask a series of yes or no questions and often record the respondent's answer.

"The scam works because fraudsters convince the person who picks up the phone that they're just 'verifying' an arrangement the company already has with the directory," according to an article on the Federal Trade Commission's website.

The scammers then start sending urgent-sounding invoices for hundreds of dollars, threatening to turn the unpaid bill over to a collection agency if the business owner doesn't pay. Then the calls start, and the scammers play a recording of a staff member agreeing to the fees in question. But, in reality, they just electronically spliced the staff member's previous yes or no answers with questions on the bill, ultimately trying to "prove" the business agreed to pay the bill.

It happened at Dr. Mark Sands' office in Midland, Mich. Deborah Sands, office manager, started receiving faxed invoices from a company called Online Local Yellow Pages with an address in Maryland.

"I knew I never worked with them or requested services from them, so I threw the invoices in the garbage," Ms. Sands said.

On March 15, she received a faxed collection notice for $676.80. Ms. Sands said she called the number listed, and an employee played her a recording of one of Ms. Sands' coworkers agreeing to list with the company.

"There's no question it was my coworker's voice," Ms. Sands said. "But I said, 'This is a scam, and your company has inserted my staff's yes or no responses and edited it into a spiel asking if they wanted to purchase advertising with Online Local Yellow Pages."

On April 15, Ms. Sands received another faxed invoice indicating their bill was transferred to Online Local Yellow Pages' pre-legal department. The balance had increased after incurring legal, administrative and interest charges, she said.

"It was very time consuming and a lot of follow-up," Ms. Sands said.

The same thing happened to Julie May, office manager at Dr. Daniel Burton's office in Grand Rapids, Mich. As of mid-June, the office had received five phone calls from Local Business Yellow Pages trying to collect $747.40 and threatening to turn the bill over to a collection agency.

"It's just wrong. It's totally wrong. I don't even think they exist," Ms. May said. "They are technically harassing us at this point for an amount that they manifested."

Upon the advice of the Michigan Dental Association, Ms. May and Ms. Sands planned to file complaints with the Michigan Attorney General's office, Maryland Attorney General's office and the FTC.

"We're telling dentists not to pay the bills. Make the scammers take you to collections," said Grace DeShaw Wilner, managing vice president of professional affairs for the Michigan Dental Association.

The FTC has already taken action against one fake Yellow Pages scammer. In 2012, a federal court ordered a European-based operation to pay more than $10.2 million for tricking small businesses and nonprofit organizations into paying for unwanted listings in online business directories, according to a FTC news release.

In July 2011, the FTC filed a complaint against Jan Marks; Yellow Page Marketing B.V., which also did business as Yellow Page B.V. and Yellow Page (Netherlands) B.V.; Yellow Publishing Ltd.; and Yellow Data Services Ltd. They allegedly ran the scheme from Palma de Mallorca, Spain, using English and Dutch corporations, according to the release.

Dr. C. Kip Beals has sought the assistance of the Ohio Dental Association for his fight against Yellow Book, which sent him a bill for $496.89. Like many other dentists, Dr. Beals advertises in the legitimate Yellowbook.com, whom he contacted to determine whether they were mailing him a bill under a similar name.

"They couldn't pull up anything by the account ID that was on my bill," Dr. Beals said.

"The two companies had similar logos, so I can see how people would be confused."

The FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection offers tips for how businesses can protect themselves from this scam:

• Train your staff to spot the scam. Talk to everybody who may answer the phone.

• Inspect your invoices. Depending on the size and nature of your business, consider implementing a purchase order system to make sure you're only paying legitimate expenses. At a minimum, authorize only a small group of employees to approve purchases and pay the bills.

• Verify to clarify. Before paying invoices, investigate the companies listed to determine whether they are legit. This can be done for free at the Better Business Bureau's website.

• File a complaint. Visit www.bbb.org to complain to the Better Business Bureau and let the FTC know by filing a complaint at www.ftc.gov or by calling 1-877-FTC-HELP.

For more information on this scam, visit online. The ADA legal department also offers "How to Avoid Becoming Victim to a Sales Scam," on the website.