Back in early October of 2013, I blogged about an award scam being run by an outfit calling itself the Small Business Institute for Excellence in Commerce (SBIEC). I had never before heard of the organization, and as far as I was able to determine, the company’s only “business” was sending out these awards. The award announcement that I received read, “Each year, the Small Business Institute for Excellence in Commerce (SBIEC) panel identifies firms that have demonstrated excellence in their respective fields and achieved commercial recognition. Your firm has been one of those selected this year and this award exemplifies that distinguished accomplishment.” That vague announcement read like your horoscope. But wait, there was more! For only $358.00, you could get a framed certificate, a crystal award, and your own press release campaign (which, of course, cross promotes the SBIEC). In our instance, they would even correct our business name. Basically, they win, you lose.
Fast forward 8 months, and things have changed a bit. Thanks to that blog post and a related post on the Pelland Advertising Facebook Page, a Google search for the Small Business Institute for Excellence in Commerce featured our blog post, our Facebook post, and several related consumer complaint sites more prominently than the website of the perpetrators themselves. In reaction to that reality, the outfit has now changed its name to the United States Trade and Commerce Institute (USTCI), disabled the original website, and has an otherwise identical website to be found under the new business name. In an effort to create an air of authenticity, the About Us page even outlines various “philanthropic outreach initiatives” such as helping to finance microloans on Kiva.org “since 2007.” Well, isn’t that special? Their business’s website was only created on March 13, 2014. In a Google search for the United States Trade and Commerce Institute, we are now dogging the new business name, too.
The spam e-mails that people receive claim that the USTCI has a “panel of industry executives and consultants” and a “Media Division”. That means that the USTCI is comprised of at least 2 people, who probably spend most of their time harvesting the e-mail addresses of small business owners and processing the credit cards of unwitting award winners. They are now targeting small businesses outside of the United States, particularly Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain with the same award scam. Non-English speaking countries are bound to be targeted next.
The comments posted on our Facebook Page make it abundantly clear that it is very easy to qualify for this dubious award. At least two people posted that they had received 2013 “Business Excellence” awards for businesses that had closed in 2012! In a sad sort of way, the posts are quite entertaining. Complaints can also be found elsewhere online, on a variety of consumer complaint websites, including The Ripoff Report. Phone calls to the SBIEC reach an answering machine with an “out of office” message, and a check of their address with the U.S. Postal Service returns with, “The address you provided is not recognized by the US Postal Service as an address we serve. Mail sent to this address may be returned.” The address on the old website could also not be located on Google Maps, with the closest recognizable address being the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC. The new website lists an address of 212 North Glebe Road in Arlington, Virginia. This is an image from Google Street View that shows the Knightsbridge Apartments that are located at that address. Hardly the location of such a respected and reputable company, is it?
Once again, how do you know if an award is a scam?
If you are told that you or your business is being nominated for an award – or is being presented with an award – it is probably best to think twice before you run out to buy a new tuxedo or evening dress. Follow a few guidelines, and ask a few questions.
Who is presenting the award? Do a Google search for the award. As you type in the name of the alleged award, is Google suggesting that it be followed by the word “scam”? I remember being called a few years ago (not coincidentally, during an election cycle) and being told that I was a small business leader who had been selected to be part of a recognition ceremony to be held in Washington, DC. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well, not exactly. It turns out that the “award” had been concocted by a PAC (political action committee) that was designed to generate financial contributions for the National Republican Party. I know people who fell for the “award” and took the trip to have their pockets carefully picked in the nation’s capital.
Is there an entry fee? We have received direct mailings on a regular basis in recent years, inviting us to enter our work for the Davey Awards. The direct mail pieces typically look like they were designed by an untalented 9 year old, but that is just the first tell-tale sign that something is fishy. To enter the competition, you need to pay a $99.00 single entry fee, a $185.00 campaign entry fee, or $270.00 to enter a so-called integrated campaign, or go all out and pay $305.00 to enter a marketing effectiveness category. Adding insult to injury, if you win one of the dubious awards, you will be billed a $175.00 “acceptance fee” for your statuette and certificate.
We have also received similar direct mail pieces from the Telly Awards. According to their website, the organization receives 10,000 to 15,000 entries from small advertising agencies that are hoping to promote their businesses, each paying a minimum entry fee of $85.00. Do the math. That means that this questionable award generates about $1,000,000.00 for its promoters … just from the entry fees. Want to, once again, add insult to injury? If you “win” one of these dubious awards, you will be automatically charged an additional $170.00 for your award statuette (probably plastic) and your certificate. This seems to be a bargain compared to the Davey Awards, since the minimum entry fee is slightly less, and you will pay $5.00 less for your statuette if you “win”. It is no surprise that, if you search for “Telly Awards scam” on Google, there are currently 113,000 results. The Telly Awards and Davey Awards are not alone in preying upon companies that are eager to broaden their exposure. They are joined by the Webby Awards and many, many other questionable enterprises that appear to be in the business of generating entry fees and selling statuettes. Do you think that anyone who wins an Emmy, Oscar, Tony, or Grammy pays for their award?
Are winners asked to make purchases? In addition to obvious scams, there are many so-called “awards” where the winners are presented with the opportunity to spend money with the award presenters. Among the longest-running are the various Who’s Who directories. Do not be thrown off by what appears to be a recognizable and once-respected name. Who’s Who directories are about as commonplace as Yellow Pages directories these days. For years, I have been asked to validate my nomination to “Who’s Who among Executives and Professionals”. The congratulatory letters read, “The Publishing Committee selected you as a potential candidate based not only upon your current standing, but focusing as well on criteria from executive and professional directories, associations, and trade journals. Given your background, the Director believes your profile makes a fitting addition to our publication. There is no fee nor obligation to be listed. As we are working off of secondary sources, we must receive verification from you that your profile is accurate. After receiving verification, we will validate your registry listing within seven business days. Once finalized, your listing will share prominent registry space with thousands of fellow accomplished individuals across the globe, each representing accomplishment within their own geographical area.”
I do not know a single successful businessperson who needs to be included in a directory of this nature. Despite what the promoters say, there will be a fee to be listed and, of course, you will be presented with the opportunity to purchase one or more of the (very expensive) printed directories. These directories are useless in these days of online reference sources, and even most public library reference departments no longer purchase the worthless volumes. About the only buyers are the same people who think that they were honored by being included. Go to Wikipedia to learn more about various Who’s Who scams. There are currently 47,500,000 search results for the term “Who’s Who scam” on Google.
Does the award require a reciprocal link to the award website? If you remember the early days of the World Wide Web, there were an abundance of website awards that fed the egos of early webmasters. Today, if you search for “website awards” on Google, there are 1,780,000,000 search results. Most of these awards are totally worthless, randomly selecting “winners” who are encouraged to “proudly display” the award badge on their website, linking it back to the award website. Basically, these award sites are link farms that are trying to enhance their own SEO through a network of links. As time goes on, Google and the other search engine robots have gotten much better at ignoring these sites – and even penalizing the sites that are linked to or from them.
Is the award organizer the primary recipient of value from the award? Many regional newspapers, magazines, and radio and television stations present annual “Best Of” awards, covering a wide range of categories. The categories all happen to consist of potential advertisers, and the awards are almost universally run by the advertising departments of the publications or broadcast organizations. The awards that are compiled based upon the votes of readers or viewers at least carry a bit of credibility. Even in those instances, the voting process may require a visit to the sponsor’s website (and all of its accompanying self-promotional messages). In almost every instance, the business that is presenting the awards will supply certificates that winners are encouraged to display at their places of business, badges that may be displayed on their websites, and award icons that may be added to their print advertising. All of that awareness does more to promote the businesses that are presenting the awards than the award recipients themselves. Is it any surprise that these awards have been concocted by advertising departments, and that winners are encouraged to buy advertising to help to promote their awards? This type of award is not an outright scam, but I would caution recipients against being overly manipulated in the process of engaging in their own part of the self-promotion.
Is the award presenter and the award recipient the same organization? There are also many thinly-veiled attempts to cross-promote one’s business ventures by having one organization present an “award” to what is essentially another arm of the same organization. This is somewhat along the lines of having General Motors present an award to its Buick division as the “Automobile Manufacturer of the Year”. Nobody would fall for that. Or would they?
Let the Winner Beware
The bottom line is that we all like to be recognized for our efforts, but beware of being exploited by people who prey upon that fact. Even recognition under legitimate competitions within an industry or a member association can be somewhat dubious because winners are only selected from among those who enter. Run your business properly, and your efforts will be acknowledged on a daily basis by your success and the satisfaction level of your clientele. This is the best recognition possible … and all that you really need.
Stay informed, because perpetrators of scams like the SBIEC and the USTCI will do their best to cover their tracks and change their appearances like chameleons. Spread the word to fellow small business owners. Information is our best defense against being scammed and exploited.
This post was written by Peter Pelland