Lawrence Hunt finance director Francis Chaney was horrified to discover during a routine examination of the company accounts 18 months ago that the office manager had been buying £75 printer cartridges at £450 a time. "I thought, what the hell is this?
I walked into the stationery room and discovered about seven of the cartridges," he says.
His initial thoughts were that the office manager had been taking backhanders. But then Francis had a telephone conversation with the cartridge salesman himself, who got nasty with him, and all became clear.
The salesman had frequently harassed the office manager, insisting she was contracted to keep buying cartridges for the full year and was it not time she bought another?
Francis told the salesman they were unsolicited goods and that they would be available for collection if and when he wanted to pick them up.
Far more scams go on than are reported because, as James Lowman, public affairs manager at the Association of Convenience Stores, points out: "Some people feel embarrassed, but they should call us or Convenience Store because the types of scam change very quickly. People get wise to one scam and the fraudsters then move on to something else. The quicker we address the scam, the better."
The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) says it has tried to get together case studies on tricks used "but it is difficult to get someone to say they were daft enough to fall for it".
Some of the most widespread cons C-Store has encountered are publishing scams whereby:
- victims pay for adverts in publications that do not exist, or are not what they purport to be
- a company claims a publication is being produced on behalf of a reputable or worthy sounding cause, or that proceeds will go to charity when they will not
- bogus invoices are sent out for adverts in fictitious publications when there has been no prior contact
- someone calls a business, claiming to be from a legitimate publisher the company has used before. Victims often agree to place a new advert.
- calls are made asking for the details of two people who can authorise an advertisement. Another call is subsequently made to one of them, asking them to authorise an advert they claim has been provisionally booked by the other person who is referred to by name
- rogue publishers claim they are producing crime-prevention year books with agencies such as the police when they have no such involvement.
Other marketing scams include:
- letters offering data protection registration under the Data Protection Act. Such letters give the impression they come from an official body and you must register immediately at a cost of up to £100 plus VAT. Genuine registration costs only £35 per year and often small firms that process personal data for limited purposes are exempt from notification
- bogus health and safety organisations that send letters asking for £125-£250 to become registered with a false enforcement agency that promises to run checks on their health and safety provisions
- business listings in directories or on websites. Businesses should beware of official-looking invoices from such directories asking for fax, internet and email details. They might look like simple requests inviting a free listing but the small print may say that if you reply you have entered into a contract for an expensive, yet worthless, listing
- rate-reduction firms which, in exchange for large fees, tell businesses they can get their rates reduced on appeal. The fees for the service may outweigh any benefits and rates might actually be increased - the Association of Convenience Stores says this is one of the most common scams it hears about
- business stationery. A fraudster claims an order has been unfulfilled and agrees to supply the remaining items, but includes an invoice
- internet scams asking for bank details - the most prevalent scam, according to the FSA.
Clive Hills, who owns Horsted Keynes Stores in East Sussex, puts the phone down on cold-callers if he is suspicious. He says he gets about two such calls a week.
He describes how a telecommunications company signed him up about a year ago without his agreement and the first he knew of it was when he got a letter from BT saying it was sorry to have lost him.
Lizette Craig, managing director of Botterills Convenience Stores, says her managers get targeted a lot - at least once a week - but the company issues written instructions to refer all such approaches back to head office.
She recalls one person who phoned up the company asking if it wanted till rolls. It didn't but they were delivered all the same and, unfortunately, someone signed the delivery note. The small print said Botterills had accepted the delivery by signing for it. "We refused to pay and told them they could come and get them," she says.
The Tobacco Manufacturers' Association recently warned of attempts to dupe retailers in Reading and London into handing over their tobacco stock. The con men posed as police officers and told retailers they were breaking the law by displaying cigar stock without a UK Duty Paid stamp. They then cleared the goods without leaving a receipt. Cigar packs and pipe tobacco do not require a UK Duty Paid stamp.
The FSB says independent convenience stores are vulnerable to scams thanks to the huge amount of red tape they have to deal with - on average 28 hours a month filling in forms, it says. Spokesman Matthew Knowles adds: "They are also vulnerable to people charging for what appear to be services that take form-filling off their hands."
The federation points out that small businesses are as vulnerable to such scams as the rest of the public but retailers do not necessarily have the same level of protection.
It warned its members this month about unsolicited mail that claims a digital camera is awaiting delivery. The recipient is told to ring a premium rate number to arrange delivery which, at a rate of £1.50 a minute, will cost more than £7 to hear in full. The card is designed to look as though a genuine delivery company has called but the FSB says it is an attempt to sell them items they have not ordered.

Golden rules

- Do not place an advert over the phone unless you are completely sure of whom you are dealing with
- Do identify the caller
- Do end the call immediately if the caller will not identify themselves, provide an address and contact number, or becomes abusive
- Do send a written reply if you receive demands for payments for something you believe you have not ordered, and keep a copy
- Do create a company policy that staff are not authorised to purchase goods without clearance
- Do take independent legal advice if you have any doubts in connection with threats of court action for non-payment
- Do contact your local Trading Standards department, Citizen's Advice Bureau or police station for advice
- Do make it clear in all calls that you are not placing an order
- Do insist on seeing written details of full terms and conditions before placing an order
- Do ask to see an example with details of circulation in an advertising sales call
- Do make a record of all contact with these companies - time, date of calls, person you spoke to and what was said
- Do ask them under section 11 of the Data Protection Act 1998 to cease processing your personal details for direct marketing purposes
- Don't send money or give out personal details to anyone until you have checked them out
- Don't agree to something just to get rid of them - you could be making a binding agreement
- Don't agree to speak to cold callers unless you've got time to ask all the questions you want
- Don't take their word for it that you have placed a previous order or that someone in your organisation has agreed to take an order.
-Don't be pressurised into paying for something you haven't agreed to.
Source: Department of Trade and Industry, Warwickshire County Counci

Dear Jac

For hundreds of readers, C-Store's own scam-buster Dear Jac has been the first port of call when they've been a victim of fraud or suspect something fishy's going on. Over the past 10 years Jac has seen no end of devious ploys to get retailers to part with their cash and has dedicated her time to highlighting these scams to others within the pages of Convenience Store.
She's ready to give her wealth of experience to you for free and is at the end of the phone waiting for your call, or you can email, fax or write to her. Phone 020 8502 9775, fax: 020 8491 6728, email or write to: Dear Jac, Convenience Store, William Reed Publishing, Broadfield Park, Crawley, West Sussex RH11 9RT.
Remember, your experiences can warn others of potential scams and make sure the rip-off merchants that target small businesses don't win.