Educational Consumer Tips

Office Supply Schemes (Paper Pirates)

Author: Better Business Bureau

The following is BBB general information and is not intended as a report on any specific company.

Every year, millions of dollars' worth of high-quality, fairly priced office supplies are sold over the telephone and Internet 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, "paper pirates" and "toner-phoners." The large majority of these schemes go either undetected or unreported because the supplies are used or the victims are too embarrassed to acknowledge they've been "suckered." Even when the victim is aware of a 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 often avoid identifying their operations with brand name suppliers or manufacturers. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), typical fraudulent telemarketers 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; 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 fraudulent telemarketers use many different ploys, the FTC has identified the following common tactics: 

1.They rarely deal with the authorized purchasing agent. Fraudulent telemarketers 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. 

2.They may mislead you to solicit an order. Fraudulent telemarketers 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. 

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

4.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. 

5.They may try to pressure you into placing an immediate order. Fraudulent telemarketers may offer "bargain prices" if you order right away-but their prices are usually much higher than the going market rate. 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. 

6.They may offer free gifts. To induce you to place an order, fraudulent telemarketers 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. 

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

8.They may refuse to accept returned merchandise. If you complain about the products received, fraudulent telemarketers 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. 

To protect your business from office supply scams, you should do the following: 

- Get everything in writing. Require that all in-person, Internet, email or telephone sales pitches, advertising and charity appeals, or requests for your personal information be made in writing 

- Refuse to make commitments with the unknown. Train employees to refuse to make deals with un-known sellers, especially over the phone, without first verifying the reliability and complaint history of the seller's business with your local Better Business Bureau and other consumer protection agencies

- Institute strict accounting controls. The handling of invoices, etc. should be centralized and authorization closely checked

- Advise employees not to give out information on makes and models of office equipment over the phone

- Beware of Strangers Seeking Names. Watch out for cold calls asking for verification of the name of the office manager, or any other employee likely to make supply purchases. If you think you have been the victim of an office supply scheme, 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: 

Stage One: When They Insist You Placed an Order 

A. Fraudulent telemarketers often claim that an order was placed and verified by someone else within a company. 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 under stages two through four. 

B. If you believe the senders made an honest mistake, write them and offer to return the merchandise, provided there is no cost to you. Give them a specific and reasonable amount of time (30 days, etc.) to pick up the merchandise. Tell the sellers that you reserve the right to keep the merchandise or dispose of it after the specified time has passed. 

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

Stage Two: Unordered Merchandise Sent By U.S. Mail 

A. 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. 

B. If you do not wish to pay for unsolicited merchandise, you may do one of three things (in each case, by law, you have no obligation to the sender): 

1) If you have not opened the package, you may mark it "Return to Sender," and the Postal Service will return it with no additional postage charged to you; 

2) If you open the package and don 't like what you find, you may throw it away; or 

3) If you open the package and like what you find, you may keep it for free. In this instance, "finders-keepers" applies unconditionally. 

C. If you are positive the merchandise was not ordered, write to the shipper that you are keeping it as a free gift, and sending a copy of your letter to the FTC at: Bureau of Consumer Protection, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, DC 20580-0001. Keep copies of all correspondence for your records. 

Stage Three: Unordered Merchandise Sent By Private Delivery Services 

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

B. 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 30 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. 

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

Stage Four: Unpaid-For Merchandise 

If you feel that merchandise has been misrepresented, withhold payment and don't use it. Then: 

A. Send a certified letter to the company explaining your position and that you expect the company to take back the merchandise. If the firm fails to respond within your stated period of time, call your local Better Business Bureau. If the problem remains unresolved, notify the FTC. 

B. If the sender 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. Consumers who wish to file a complaint can contact the Federal Trade Commission at 877-382-4357 or Phonebusters if the firm is Canadian, by calling 888-495-8501. (Phonebusters is the national deceptive telemarketing call center operated by the Ontario, Canada, Provincial Police).

For more information, contact:

Better Business Bureau  
(800) 828-5000  

This report is general in nature and is not intended as a Business Review on any company, service or product.