Scam targeting small businesses with hidden charges
An online security expert and an Ottawa business owner are warning about a telemarketing scam based in Montreal that targets companies looking to increase their online presence and charges them for services they never agreed to buy.
The website for the Business Registry Center claims the company can improve the online presence of a small business by better linking its online information to its physical location.
When a telemarketer claiming to represent the company called Ottawa boutique owner Emily McDonell, she told them she had already registered her Preston Street store on Google. But he told her she hadn't done it properly.
"[He said] 'No you need to do more about it. You want to have your business on Google right? People need to Google your business and find it.' And I said 'Yeah I guess so.'" said McDonell.
"And he said 'Why don't I send you a package in the mail and you can see if you want our services,'" she said.
Package came with bill, harassing calls
McDonnell said the package that came in the mail included an invoice for $500.
"I called the Business Registry Center back and I said 'What it this?' And he said you've agreed to accept our services so now you need to pay that plus tax," she said.
McDonell said she hadn't agreed to anything or received any service.
Then the phone calls began, several times a day.
She said the company threateneed to take legal action against her and warned her that her credit rating was at risk.
Fearful of a bad credit report, she paid, but she later cancelled the payment with Visa after speaking with Keith Murphy of cyber security firm Defence Intelligence.
Murphy said the company's website is professional and at first glance appears to offer a legitimate service.
"People have heard a lot about search engine optimization, everybody knows Google, and hey, I'm a small business, I don't really know this stuff, maybe they can help me. Then they just get forced into it through repeated calls, harassment and intimidation," said Murphy.
Fine print says buyer is signing up for a two year package
But he said there were a few warning signs, the first of which is that the Montreal address listed on the company website as their office turned out to be a post office box at a UPS Store in Montreal.
And Murphy said anyone who read the "user agreement" listed on the site should also have been alarmed.
The agreement read, in part, that the "purchaser has been assigned a discount based on a minimum two years package of services. The standard fees total a minimum of five thousand five hundred and ninety two dollars payable quarterly at a rate of six hundred and ninety nine dollars."
Google itself offers search engine optimization services for free.
The website also had contact phone number and email, but no actual names of people were listed on the site.
The Business Registry Center spokesman Dan Fortier responded in a letter Monday, saying while Google listings are available for free, the company charges their service fees for "the programming of their listing which includes key words, pictures/videos, business description, and links to social medias, organic search engine optimization and results tracking."