Even if you know in your gut it’s a con.
That’s where Klaus Mordhorst has been since July 2013.
Mordhorst owns Leffler Chartering, a Kinnelon-based maritime arbitration business.
In early June 2013, Mordhorst’s fax machine rang.
One page came out, titled “Yellow Page New Jersey,” and it offered a free Facebook page to go with a business listing. There was a space to fill out contact information and for a signature.
Mordhorst filled it out and faxed it back, not thinking anything of it until July 6, when he received a notice for payment.
It was an invoice from Yellow-Page-Online-USA.com for $1,188, requesting payment in the form of a check to be made out to Open Business Directory. It was a bill for a 12-month business directory listing.
The invoice showed a “service agent” address in Boston and a “legal head office” in Dubai, but the letter was postmarked from Germany. (Later, we saw there was also a Moscow address listed on the company website.)
Mordhorst ignored it, thinking it was some kind of scam.
A near identical invoice was sent on July 13, demanding the same amount of money.
He went back to look at the fax he returned to the company.
For the first time he saw the fine print, in what appears to be an 8-point font: “…we hereby order registration at the business directory Yellow-Page-USA.com managed by Open Business Directory Ltd. … for a term of two years, at a price of US$99 per month, payable one year in advance…”
“There was no check box to opt in for that option, which I would never have done,” Mordhorst said. “I perceive this as a disingenuous marketing trap.”
So he ignored it.
Then came the third invoice on July 19, saying he owed the $1,188, plus a $25 “reminder charge” for a total of $1,213.
“All along, I treated this as a scam,” he said. “They never explained where such a listing would appear — internet directory, hard copy, in which countries — or the two-year minimum term at the outlandish rate of $99 per month. However, these folks are persistent.”
On Aug. 2, the fourth bill arrived, with another $25 “reminder charge.” The total was now $1,238, and the letter threatened debt collection, more late fees and that the debt “may have a negative impact on your credit rating.”
Mordhorst ignored it again.
He received a similar letter on Aug. 8, and another on Aug. 28, which threatened legal action for nonpayment “which may result in levies against your property or other assets after judgement.”
Mordhorst called the company to dispute the charge, and on Sept. 16, did so in writing, saying he signed up for a free listing and that he did not sign on for any pay service, calling it “disingenuous” and “deceptive.”
He asked the company to cease and desist.
On Sept. 20, he received yet another letter, which said not paying would be “…detrimental to your business.”
He filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau.
Then on Sept. 23, Mordhorst received another email from the company. It offered a deal, which it called “a gesture of goodwill”— two years of listing service for the price of one if Mordhorst would immediately pay the $1,188.
Mordhorst contacted Bamboozled, but before we even made a phone call, the collection letters magically stopped coming.
Mordhorst asked us to drop the case, thinking it was over.
But it wasn’t.
He received another letter, dated Feb. 21, again threatening to file suit if he didn’t pay $1,238 in seven days.
He’d had enough, and feeling duped, he asked us to take a look.
ALLEGATIONS OF A SCAM
There certainly was a lot to look at.
The BBB received 1,544 complaints against the company in the past three years, giving the company an “F” rating. BBB said it received a high volume of complaints that followed the same pattern.
“Yellow-Page-USA.com uses a name and logo so close to the actual Yellow Page Group consumers believe they are dealing with their current advertiser,” the BBB site explained. “They are then enrolled into an agreement and told they have to pay a fee to cancel.”
It also said there doesn’t appear to be a company office at the Boston address.
New Jersey’s Division of Consumer Affairs received five complaints in the past two years, and it referred four to Massachusetts and one to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
The Massachusetts Attorney General’s office said it received 131 complaints since 2008, and depending on the alleged huckster’s method of contact, it’s referred consumers to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service for mail scams, while the FTC received those stemming from phone calls, faxes or emails.
The Federal Trade Commission said it hasn’t brought any actions against the company, and it couldn’t share the number of complaints without a Freedom of Information Act request.
We decided not to bother.
The Postal Inspection Service was unable to answer our inquiries in time for publication.
We did learn, though, that with all the company’s legal threats, it’s not a party to any lawsuits in New Jersey, nor did it come up in a nationwide database lawsuit search.
We reached out to the company several times via email, but the inquiries went unanswered.
But interestingly, the next day, Mordhorst received a note from the company. It said “there are several Collection Agencies approaching our clients,” and it said it wouldn’t farm out collections without first notifying the customer.
Exactly what that meant we have no idea, so we sent a note to the “legal department” email address on that notification.
We got an answer. The email response, signed “Admin Dept Head Office,” said it couldn’t discuss Mordhorst because “contract accounts are of a confidential nature.”
It said the company was registered in Dubai, and its other answers only ignited more questions. We responded with an email of more inquiries, but the company didn’t respond before publication. Here are the highlights:
It said the company “undertakes it’s business in a correct and proper manner and complies with all relevant laws and regulations within the online business directory sector in which it operates.”
We asked what laws and regulations it was referring to.
Addressing the BBB complaints, it said it didn’t know how many there were, “but all complaints received by the Company are dealt with and the Company will look to resolve any such complaints with it’s Customer.”
It also said “…but the number of complaints received during any year is also relatively low in relation to the number of Customers that the Company services.”
We asked if the BBB’s report saying the company didn’t respond to complaints was wrong, and how many customers the company has, and how many complaints it has received.
It also said the majority of complaints are because the customers have failed to read the contract.
We asked why the top of the solicitation appears to be offering a free service, and why the fees are in small print at the bottom of the page.
We also said public records showed no lawsuits were filed by the company over payment disputes, and we asked if those records were missing something.
We’re still waiting for those answers.
So where does this leave Mordhorst?
We think given this company’s history, it’s probably safe to say he doesn’t have to worry about lawsuits or debt collection actions appearing on his credit report.
Still, we can’t tell him to completely ignore the ongoing collections letters, nor can we suggest he pay what the company, and its questionable reputation, says he should pay.
He should keep an eye on his credit report, and file complaints with BBB, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and both New Jersey and Massachusetts. He should also throw one in for the FTC and the Postal Inspection Service, too.
Mordhorst said he feels scammed, taken for a ride and entrapped.
“This initially came to me as an unsolicited invitation for free listing … and with the mail/faxes coming out of Boston, with legal office in Dubai and the postage paid by the German Bundespost, I was/am very, very suspicious of the veracity of this whole thing.”
As well he should be.
And if you receive any kind of fax solicitation — for any service, from anyone — we’d suggest you steer clear. Just in case.