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Office Supply Schemes And Pape

Every year, millions of dollars' worth of high-quality, fairly priced office supplies are sold over the telephone by honest, reputable suppliers. Unfortunately, for many businesses and organizations, millions of dollars are also conned out of businesses each year by office supply schemers and "paper pirates" or "toner-phoners." The large majority of these rip-offs go either undetected or unreported because the supplies are used or the victims are embarrassed to acknowledge they have "been taken."

Even when the victim is aware of the swindle, in many cases there is no legal recourse. While their schemes might be highly unethical, the perpetrators usually devise them in a manner that is totally legal. Telephone salespeople for these unethical operations are carefully trained not to misrepresent their employers, and their meticulously scripted pitches avoid identifying their operations with brand name suppliers or manufacturers.

"WATS-line Hustlers"
Paper pirate and office supply schemers frequently operate from supply warehouses thousands of miles from their prospective victims. Because they use long distance telephone lines, such as the Wide Area Telecommunications Service, or WATS-line, these solicitors have been dubbed "WATS-line hustlers" by law enforcement officials.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), typical WATS-line hustlers target all kinds of businesses and organizations, including restaurants, professional offices, religious groups, schools, and hospitals. They generally sell products needing constant replacement such as office supplies (pens; typewriter ribbons; fax paper; photocopier paper, ink or toner) and maintenance supplies (light bulbs, cleaning compounds).

The telephone solicitors often read from printed scripts and use a printed list of responses to deflect objections.

While WATS-line hustlers use many different ploys, the FTC has identified the following common tactics:

They rarely deal with the authorized purchasing agent.
WATS-line hustlers usually try to talk with an inexperienced employee who is unfamiliar with purchasing procedures. They may use the name of the authorized purchasing agent, or the name of another employee to convince the unwitting victim to divulge information or approve an order.

They may mislead you to solicit an order.
WATS-line hustlers usually try to mislead you into believing that they represent your regular supplier. One effective scam involves the fraudulent use of the name of a business's actual supplier to solicit orders. Hustlers also have been known to introduce themselves as representing a storage company with an impressive-sounding name, such as, U.S. General Storage or American Central Warehouse.

They might try to con you with a fabricated tale of a "disaster" that allows them to offer substantial savings by selling supplies at sharply reduced prices.
Overturned tractor-trailers, fire sales, and liquidations are among the many fictions used.

They may claim to be conducting a survey of office equipment or updating their records.
Once you have given them the information they need (for example, the model number on your photocopier), they may pose as your new supplier, or as an authorized dealer for the products you use.

They may try to pressure you into placing an immediate order.
WATS-line hustlers may offer "bargain prices" if you order right away -- but their prices are usually no bargain. The pitch that prices are "going up tomorrow" or that, since you mistakenly were not notified of a price increase, you are entitled to a special "one-time only" purchase at the "old" price, is aimed at pushing you into immediate, imprudent action.

They may offer free gifts.
To induce you to place an order, WATS-line hustlers may offer to send a free personal gift, such as a transistor radio or calculator, to your home. Most likely, the gift will never arrive, and even if it does, its value will rarely be offset by the inflated price of the products ordered.

They may misrepresent merchandise, including the quality, type, size, and brand of their products.

They may refuse to accept returned merchandise.
If you complain about the products received, WATS-line hustlers may try to persuade you to keep the shipment at a so-called "discount price." They usually refuse to accept returned merchandise or pay for return shipments, and they may attempt to charge you for storage or damages.

How To Protect Your Business
Because there are so many variations of the paper pirate and office supply swindles, it is impossible to anticipate and guard against every possible approach. But there are steps you can take to keep your company from being victimized.

Never buy from a new supplier by telephone or mail until you have verified the company's existence and reputation. Ask for references and check them. Find out how long the firm has operated out of its present location, and, if possible, visit the company. Ask your local BBB for a Reliability Report.

Do not accept Cash on Delivery (COD) shipments. Insist on open account billing, so that if there is a problem, you have some leverage.

Insist on sending written purchase orders.

Designate purchasing agents for ordering, receiving, and paying for supplies.

Inform all employees about your organization's purchasing, receiving, invoicing, and payment systems.

Alert employees to the office supply racket, and advise them not to give out information on makes and models of office equipment over the phone.

Watch out for cold calls asking for verification of the name of the office manager, or any other employee likely to make supply purchases.

What To Do If You Are Victimized
If you think you have been the victim of a paper pirate or office supply scheme, first contact the supplier and attempt to work out an amicable solution. If the supplier is uncooperative, your next step will depend on the stage at which you become aware of the scheme.

Unpaid-For Merchandise

If you have not paid for the merchandise and you feel that it has been misrepresented, withhold payment and do not use the merchandise. Then take the following steps:

Send a certified letter to the company explaining your position and how you expect the company to settle the matter--by taking back the merchandise.

If the firm fails to respond within your stated period of time, send a copy of your letter to your local Better Business Bureau, with a cover letter asking for assistance.

If the problem remains unresolved, notify your local police department and the nearest office of the FTC. If the U.S. mail has been used in any way by the organization attempting to defraud you, contact the Chief Postal Inspector of the U.S. Postal Service.

If at this stage the supplier threatens to take legal action, or to turn your account over to a collection agency, contact an attorney and your state attorney general's office, listed under state government in most telephone directories.

Unordered Merchandise Sent By U.S. Mail

Under federal law, you are entitled to regard unordered merchandise sent through the U.S. mail as a free gift. The same law makes it illegal to mail bills for such unordered merchandise. Note, however, that this does not include merchandise sent in error.

You are entitled to refuse a shipment arriving by U.S. mail as long as you do not open it. To avoid misunderstandings, first send the company shipping the merchandise a letter (preferably certified with return receipt requested) asking for proof of your records.

If you are positive the merchandise was not ordered, write the shipper that you are keeping it as a free gift, and sending a copy of your letter to the FTC. Keep copies of all correspondence for your records.

Unordered Merchandise Sent By Private Delivery Services

If unordered merchandise arrives by private delivery, do not accept the shipment.

If you have already accepted the shipment, send the shipper a certified letter with return receipt requested, demanding proof of your order. If there is no valid proof, inform the sender that unless the merchandise is picked up within thirty days, you will dispose of it. By giving the sender an opportunity to recover the merchandise, you invalidate any claim that you accepted an offer of sale merely by keeping the shipment.

If you return the merchandise, do so at the sender's expense and get a receipt from the carrier.

If an invoice for the unordered merchandise arrives, withhold payment and do not use the merchandise. If the firm fails to respond to your letter, contact your local Better Business Bureau for assistance, or use the online complaint form.

Also, notify your local police department, and the nearest office of the FTC.

If the supplier threatens you with legal action, contact an attorney and your state attorney general's office.

When They Insist You Placed An Order

WATS-line hustlers often insist that an order was placed and verified. Before you accept, or pay for, any merchandise that arrives under less-than-clear circumstances, protect yourself by insisting on proof that an order was placed. If no proof is forthcoming, follow the appropriate steps listed above.

If you believe the sender made an honest mistake, you may offer to return the goods at the sender's expense.

If it turns out that a verifiable order was placed and you have received exactly what was ordered you may be held responsible for paying the bill.

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As a matter of policy, BBB does not endorse any product, service or business.

BBB Business Reviews are provided solely to assist you in exercising your own best judgment. Information in this BBB Business Review is believed reliable but not guaranteed as to accuracy.

BBB Business Reviews generally cover a three-year reporting period. BBB Business Reviews are subject to change at any time.