Justice Past Due
Postal inspectors provide few details of probe into local company mailing solicitations made to look like bills
By Kevin Uhrich 07/03/2014
I f something that looked like a bill recently came in the mail from a Pasadena-based business called National Telecompany, Inc. (NTC), stating your business, agency, school or nonprofit organization has “Total New Charges” of hundreds of dollars equaling a “Total Amount” for that same amount, be careful.
“It’s not a bill,” NTC spokeswoman Adrianna Torres explained recently. “It’s a solicitation, is what it is.”
Based at 357 W. Bonita Ave. in Pomona, with a “virtual office” without employees at 155 N. Lake Ave. in Pasadena, NTC’s misleading efforts at acquiring new customers have reached the offices of the Pasadena Weekly and its sister publication, Arroyo Monthly. Similar “solicitations” have also been received by PW’s sister weekly newspaper, the Argonaut News, in Marina del Rey.
In the case of PW, NTC was asked by the paper’s managers to not send another so-called “solicitation” — a practice which has been described as “theft by invoice” — but did so anyway just last week.
The company’s mailing list apparently isn’t confined to just Pasadena, reaching states such as Arizona, Texas, Iowa, Minnesota, Maine, Connecticut, New York, Illinois and Florida. Like people in California who are aware of the practices of this business, officials in those states also were not pleased about being contacted.
An April memo distributed to Florida State University employees spells out the college’s main concerns. “Some University departments have received fraudulent telecom maintenance ‘invoices’ via the US mail from National Telecompany, Inc. that in reality are solicitations for business” the memo states. “These types of solicitations have been widely reported nationwide as an operation that targets governmental and educational institutions. National Telecompany is NOT an authorized vendor for the University. Do NOT pay this ‘invoice.’”
In fact, such practices have become so prevalent in California that even the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) has received these types of solicitations, sparking a review of the suspicious-looking documents by the transit agency’s inspector general two years ago. None of the seven questionable bills received by the agency had been paid, and officials filed complaints with the state attorney general’s office and the US Postal Inspection Service office, according to the August 29, 2012 report prepared by the Metro inspector general’s office.
Cease and desist
Although NTC is not alone in this type of business practice, it is a major and uninhibited player in the game, one that has sparked both outrage among those who have received these notices and interest by US postal inspectors, who, the Pasadena Weekly has learned are investigating the business.
“SCAM, SCAM, SCAM,” wrote Rick U on a June 23 Yelp review of NTC. “I received this invoice today while filling in for my front desk person, and doing the mail. Good thing I did or this invoice would have been sent to accounts payable and who knows, it might have been paid. They send you what looks like an invoice for services. At first glance it looks like you’re doing business with the company because of the way the invoice appears. Good thing I called and decided to Google them. From now on I am Googling all unknown businesses.”
“I got this SCAM in the mail too,” wrote fellow Yelper Lisa B. “[P]athetic the lengths people will go to ... their invoice even says ‘surcharge for immediate response.’ Who puts that on an invoice for service? I also noticed the ‘invoice’ doesn’t have an invoice number, it has an application number....down in the fine print it says it is not a bill but at first, second and third glance it looks legit. Like everyone says: THROW THEIR PAPERWORK AWAY.”
One of the bigger companies to participate in this questionable business practice is US Telecom, or USTelecom, or UST, whose manager, David Bell, also serves as president of NTC, according to the Better Business Bureau of Dallas. Bell’s business has become so well known that another business called U.S. Telecom was forced to recently issue a “fraud alert” on its Web site to warn its customers.
“If you are seeking to contact the United States Telecom Association (US Telecom) regarding an invoice you have recently received for a ‘Telecom Maintenance Agreement,’ please be advised that we are not the company that sent you this invoice (we are in fact an association that represents broadband providers),” states the fraud alert, which includes a copy of the “solicitation.”
“We are aware that a company calling itself both ‘UST’ and ‘US Telecom’ has been sending these fraudulent invoices to school districts, small businesses and other organizations,” according to the alert. “U.S. Telecom recently became aware of this company’s fraudulent activity, and is working through all available legal avenues to address this issue. In fact, the attorneys general for the states of New York and North Dakota have already sent cease-and-desist letters to this company.”
Bell, who maintains an office at NTC’s Pomona headquarters, did not return calls for comment on this story.
According to the US Postal Inspection Service, solicitations disguised as invoices are commonplace around the nation. NTC’s operation has caught the attention of government officials.
“This matter is under investigation by Postal Inspection Service. We are not releasing any details regarding the investigation. We do not want to compromise the investigation,” Postal Inspection Service spokeswoman Stacia Crane wrote in an email to the Pasadena Weekly.
According to Paul Little, president and CEO of the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce, such schemes have become all too common.
“People do this kind of thing all the time, and you get them for any number of things,” Little said. “They send you something that looks like a bill and people hand it off to their accountant to pay. It’s a scheme for sure. Whether it’s illegal, I don’t know.”
At the federal level, such mailings are governed by Title 39, Section 3001 of the United States Code. According to the statute, NTC’s “solicitation” is in violation of the code, which “makes it illegal to mail a solicitation in the form of an invoice, bill, or statement of account due unless it conspicuously bears a notice on its face that it is, in fact, merely a solicitation. This disclaimer must be in very large (at least 30-point) type and must be in boldface capital letters in a color that contrasts prominently with the background against which it appears,” the code states.
The black-and-white NTC documents sent to this newspaper have the disclaimer, and all of the necessary wording is in capital letters. But those letters are not in the required boldface. Nor are they prominently displayed. None of the letters in the disclaimer are more than eight points in size.
“Don’t be victimized by con artists who try to get your company to order goods or services by mailing you solicitations designed to look like invoices,” postal inspectors warn on their Web site. “The unscrupulous individuals who mail these know that some unsuspecting managers and employees will be fooled by their appearance and will automatically remit payment, thinking the company had placed an order,” states the government Web site. Postal officials ask anyone who suspects something wrong with such mailings to contact them.
Crane wrote that anyone found guilty of such crimes could face huge fines and lengthy prison terms.
“A conviction of mail fraud could lead to up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, or both for each count. If the violation occurs in relation to a presidentially declared major disaster or emergency or affects a financial institution a person could be fined up to $1 million or imprisoned up to 30 years, or both,” Crane wrote. “In 39 United States Code, Section 3012 it authorizes the US Postal Service to impose civil penalties based on the number of pieces mailed by the promoter. The Judicial Officer of the Postal Service may impose a penalty of up to $1 million.”
‘Terminate the call’
Torres at NTC’s Pomona office was eventually pulled off the phone by a manager and told she was not allowed to speak with a reporter with the Pasadena Weekly. She said a manager would call in the morning, but he or she never made contact. Torres also did not return a number of subsequent phone calls.
Before hanging up, however, Torres seemed to believe in the company and its actual mission, which, according to its Web site, is selling and maintaining computer and telephonic equipment used by businesses.
“I get people who call in every now and then,” she said, explaining that it is her job to take such calls. “That’s essentially what I do. The feedback I’m getting is people are concerned about how we solicit business. That’s the main complaint.”
However, she said, there are people who pay the money and use the service. “There are some people who say they don’t want the services. It does happen. But we have a whole network of people who do like our services. I’m not saying it [the solicitation] is or isn’t deceptive. It just depends on the person who is reading it. If I would see something like that, I would throw it away.”
It was at that point that Torres, who said she started with the company in February, was told to “terminate the call” and hang up.
Crane said anyone receiving such notices should not respond. They should either give it to their letter carrier to send to a local postal inspector or mail it to: US Postal Inspection Service Criminal Investigations Service Center, 433 W. Harrison St., Room 3255, Chicago, Ill., 60699-3255.
Or people can report fraud online at postalinspectors.uspis.gov or get a copy of Form 8165, “Mail Fraud Report,” at their local post office. Also file a complaint by calling (877) 876-2455.
Little said he sent warnings to Chamber members about such “solicitations” resembling invoices two months ago, “to let members know that those things do happen and to look carefully at their bills and verify” their authenticity. “It’s certainly walking an ethical tightrope,” he said. “The legality of it is something else to be determined.”