MONONA, Wis. - As a small business owner, April Carlisle watches every penny that comes into her Monona Farmers Insurance agency and every penny that goes out.
So, when she received a "Collection Warning" for $496.05 from the Yellow Pages, she was skeptical. Her parent company gives her access to Yellow Book online, but she has never signed a contract to be in the actual Yellow Book itself. The Bulgaria return address in the fine print was the final tip that the invoice wasn't real.
"If nobody was paying attention to this, it just ended up on someone's desk to make the bills, they (could) pay out a pretty big chunk," she said. "I knew almost immediately something was fishy here. You want to make sure you know what's going in and out of your own company."
Carlisle is one of dozens of business owners throughout Wisconsin who are being targeted by what the Better Business Bureau is calling a scam. The 1-800 number on the invoice goes to the Washington, D.C. area, and it has led to the BBB in that region to investigate further.
"The Better Business Bureau hears of scams targeting businesses regularly, and has seen an increase in the last couple years," said Lisa Schiller, chief investigator for the BBB in Wisconsin. "We want to get the word out quickly so that businesses don't fall for it and help line the pockets of these scammers."
Schiller said Carlisle is not alone in being targeted by this scam. She reported getting her first report of this scam in December from a Janesville elementary school. Since then, the BBB has heard from numerous companies, specifically smaller businesses.
"Small businesses can be particularly vulnerable to various scams, such as the phony invoice scheme. Becoming a victim of fraud will have a negative financial impact on any business and the BBB suggests that owners train staff so as to help protect themselves," Schiller said.
Among the suggestions the BBB recommends to business owners is to limit the number of people who are authorized to pay invoices; to scrutinize all invoices, specifically those you haven't seen before; and to generally avoid payment until you know the goods or services have been ordered and received.
For Carlisle, that kind of money represents an entire annual marketing budget that she normally spends locally, in Monona and on the east side of Madison. She figured her training as an insurance agent helped her sniff out the bogus bill.
"I'm a risk assessor, right?" she said with a laugh. "So manage your risk."
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