Category Archives: Advertising

Queensland fraudster Amanda Stichbury fined yet again

Amanda Stichbury fined in court

Many people operating businesses in the travel and tourism industries will be familiar with the long-running false billing scams perpetrated by Amanda Jane Stichbury and her companies Accommodation Find Pty Ltd, Internet Find Pty Ltd, and Special Days Pty Ltd.

Many businesses were sent either invoices or renewal letters concerning advertising on her large network of websites.  Most advertisements were never ordered or authorised, so some businesses were tricked into paying the invoices that arrived, assuming it was an ongoing service.

Some of the websites that Amanda Stichbury set up had names that closely resembled names of official government tourism authorities, confusing and potentially deceiving many business owners.  This attracted significant attention from many tourism bodies across Australia who regularly published warnings about the sorts of invoices and renewal letters that Amanda Stichbury and her network of websites were regularly sending out.

In 2014, Amanda Stichbury was fined almost $20,000 for breaching Australian Consumer Law in regards to unsolicited invoices and requests for payments.  However, this didn’t deter her from continuing her existing business model which was recently described by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) in Queensland as being “based almost entirely on deception” and “preying upon time-poor businesses“.

In January 2017, Amanda Stichbury was fined a further $50,000 in the Southport Magistrates Court after a lengthy investigation by the OFT.  A total of 166 charges were made, including:

  1. sending another person an invoice for unsolicited services
  2. making false and misleading representations

Businesses across Australia, not just those in the travel and tourism industry, were on the receiving end of unsolicited invoices requesting payment for advertising that was never ordered.  The dodgy invoices included wording which implied an existing business relationship, which was false.

While the full extent of Amanda Stichbury’s fraudulent operations may never be known, it is reasonable to conclude that incidents that were brought up in court proceedings were just the tip of the iceberg.  Most business owners who identified the invoices and renewals being sent to them as fraudulent simply threw them away and didn’t report it to the appropriate authorities.  Some who did pay wrongly assumed it was for a similarly named organisation they already advertised with and just kept paying.

Executive Director of the Queensland Office of Fair Trading, Brian Bauer, commented on the verdict and fine handed down against Amanda Stichbury by the  Southport Magistrates Court. He said that it:

  1. reflected the serious nature of Amanda Stichbury’s offending
  2. made a clear statement that the behaviour and conduct of Amanda Stichbury has no place in Queensland
  3. served as a warning to others who thought of adopting Amanda Stichbury’s deceptive business model

He also said that the OFT will “continue to vigorously pursue any unscrupulous traders” like Amanda Stichbury who intentionally mislead other businesses.

If you have received a fraudulent invoice from Amanda Stichbury, Accommodation Find Pty Ltd, Internet Find Pty Ltd or Special Days Pty Ltd, you can report it at www.qld.gov.au/fairtrading.

Amanda Stichbury “did not appear apologetic”

Despite being fined almost $20,000 and convicted for similar offences in 2014, the Southport Magistrates Court noted that “Ms Stichbury did not appear apologetic for her behaviour” during proceedings in January 2017.  Her lack of remorse contributed to the hefty penalty of $50,000 that was imposed upon her and her companies.

Since 2011, many organisations in the tourism and travel industry have received from their clients copies of fraudulent invoices sent to them by Amanda Stichbury’s network of websites.  The big breakthrough in public exposure came when AccomNews published a series of articles about Amanda’s activities a few years ago:

AccomNews is a leading industry-wide portal providing critical information to those in the accommodation industry and the publisher of the widely distributed monthly Resort News magazine.  Their articles received widespread exposure and resulted in many people coming forward who had also received unsolicited bills and renewal letters for advertising they never ordered.

The increasing number of reports being published on the internet about Amanda Stichbury’s fraudulent activities resulted in bad publicity for her business.  She contacted a number of the more higher profile publishers, demanding they remove their articles about her.  At least one organisation was also threatened with legal action on the basis that the information published about her and her business operations was not only misleading, but was also causing her loss of income.  Ironically, while this may have caused her income to reduce, it actually saved many businesses from losing money themselves once they realised the invoices and renewal letters were a scam.  In fact, the Office of Fair Trading made it very clear after its successful court action that Amanda Stichbury operated a business model that was “based almost entirely on deception“.

Some of the organisations that published information about Amanda Stichbury’s fraudulent activities include:

  1. The Queensland justice system in regards to her significant court fine and convictions in 2014
  2. Several articles by the respected AccomNews publication and Resort News
  3. A media report on Amanda’s activities broadcast on TV by the ABC during The Checkout show
  4. Repeated warnings over many years about Amanda Stichbury’s unsolicited invoices and advertising renewal requests by the government tourism organisations Visit Canberra, Tourism Victoria, Destination NSW and South Australian Tourism Commission
  5. An alert published by the Queensland Tourism Industry Council
  6. A warning from Hosted Accommodation Australia Ltd about bogus invoices originating from Special Days Pty Ltd
  7. The Australian Tourism Data Warehouse (ATDW) who informed its members to discard any request for payment from Amanda Stichbury’s companies and websites as they are “scam invoices”
  8. Copies of fraudulent invoices and renewal notices sent to accommodation providers that were forwarded to tourism organisations and media outlets over many years
  9. Social media postings by businesses who had received unsolicited invoices from Amanda Stichbury and her websites

Amanda Stichbury has attempted to get negative publicity about her business activities pushed down internet search engine results that referenced her name, company names, website names and phone numbers.  This was done by publishing large numbers of web pages with her name in the title or document body in order to dilute any negative page headings that came up.  The snippet below of a Google search for her name shows one negative result swamped by other pages created by Amanda Stichbury.

Search for Amanda Stichbury

In closing, the Queensland Office of Fair Trading warned all businesses to “be vigilant when paying invoices, ensuring the payments are for services that were legitimately provided“.  If this vigilance is exercised, then false billing scams won’t succeed.

Details of the companies prosecuted in court

  • Special Days Pty Ltd – ABN 37 086 159 211 / ACN 086 159 211
  • Accommodation Find Pty Ltd – ABN 18 086 159 195 / ACN 086 159 195
  • Internet Find Pty Ltd – ABN 68 162 430 159 / ACN 162 430 159

References

“Local fraudster all stitched up”
Queensland Office of Fair Trading
“…Ms Stichbury’s businesses, Accommodation Find Pty Ltd, Internet Find Pty Ltd, and Special Days Pty Ltd, sent unsolicited invoices to several businesses nation-wide requesting they pay for services that were never requested or authorised…Amanda Jane Stichbury pleaded guilty to a total of 166 counts, including sending another person an invoice for unsolicited services, and making false and misleading representations…Ms Stichbury was personally fined $10,000 and three corporations of which she was sole director were fined a total of $40,000…”
https://www.qld.gov.au/law/laws-regulated-industries-and-accountability/queensland-laws-and-regulations/fair-trading-services-programs-and-resources/fair-trading-latest-news/media-statements/local-fraudster-all-stitched-up/

“Queensland business owner fined $50,000 after pleading guilty to sending unsolicited invoices”
Smart Company
“…Stichbury was fined $10,000 in the Southport Magistrates Court earlier this month, and her three businesses were fined a total of $40,000…the success and prevalence of such scams are a symptom of a busy society…a successful scam like this can go uncovered for a long time…”
http://www.smartcompany.com.au/finance/fraud/82023-queensland-business-owner-fined-50000-pleading-guilty-sending-unsolicited-invoices/

Careful with Victoria Tourism & www.victoriatourism.com.au listing renewals

A number of accommodation managers in Victoria have been receiving unsolicited emails requesting that they renew their listing on the Victoria Tourism website at www.victoriatourism.com.au.

Before going any further, it is very important to note that Victoria Tourism is in no way related to the official government tourism organisation of Tourism Victoria.  In fact, the company behind the confusingly named Victoria Tourism website is Accommodation Find Pty Ltd – one of several companies based in Queensland who have a history of false billing scams.

Instead of past practices of sending out what resembled bills in the mail for advertising on their websites, their tactic for the Victoria Tourism website is to send out emails requesting authorisation for continuing an apparently existing listing.

A copy of a typical email sent out by Victoria Tourism (Accommodation Find Pty Ltd) is shown below, with the personal details of the recipient removed.

Victoria Tourism bill

The email is rather strange, being a screenshot of a letter which isn’t very clear and is not easy to read.

Notable features of the email are:

  1. It is issued by Victoria Tourism (not Tourism Victoria), with a green and blue “V” logo
  2. The company behind the website is listed as Accommodation Find Pty Ltd
  3. The ABN on the email is 18 086 159 195
  4. The contact phone number is 1800 199 863 which also relates to the companies Special Days Pty Ltd and Internet Find Pty Ltd – all based in Queensland
  5. The cost to advertise is specified as $95 for a 12 month listing

Many accommodation providers who receive this email never signed up for a listing on the Victoria Tourism website and may be unaware that they even had a listing on there.

The email implies an existing business relationship by stating:

“It has come to my attention that your listing on our Victoria Tourism website is due to expire…”

Also:

“Please forward through your authorisation for its continuation for the next 12 months.”

This implies that the recipient of the email has already authorised and paid for at least one 12 month advertising period and is being asked to pay $95 to renew it for another 12 months.

However, these implications are false. The Victoria Tourism website has only been running in its current form since the end of 2015.  How can all these accommodation providers who are receiving this renewal email be at the end of their 12 month advertising period in March 2016?

The organisation behind the Victoria Tourism website also previously created the Vic Tourism website at www.victourism.com.au. Read about the history of the Vic Tourism website for further information.

While the Victoria Tourism email does not resemble a bill like other letters that Accommodation Find Pty Ltd has sent out in the past, all accommodation owners that receive it should not submit their authorisation to renew without careful consideration.  Keep in mind that:

  1. The email is an unsolicited offer to continue a service that was not ordered in the first place
  2. The email implies a past business relationship and existing advertising authorisation
  3. The website title of Victoria Tourism is an exact reversal of the two words which constitute Victoria’s official government tourism body of Tourism Victoria.  Such word tactics are a common method used to try and confuse people into thinking they are dealing with an official organisation or popular brand.

If you have inadvertently provided authorisation to Victoria Tourism to bill you for an accommodation listing that you thought was with Tourism Victoria, you can lodge a report with the ACCC by visiting their report a scam page.  Specify “false billing” as the scam type in your report.

Update for 2017

A number of accommodation providers have received unsolicited emails from the Victoria Tourism website requesting that they check their listing and review the details.  An example of such an email is below.

Victoria Tourism

It is unclear if there is a cost involved in updating such a listing when invited to do so via email, however when examining the advertising page, an annual cost of $99 is mentioned.

Curiously, the contact details for the Victoria Tourism website have changed since the original email that accommodation providers received last year.  In particular:

  • The phone number has changed from 1800 199 863 to 1300 656 789
  • The postal address is now listed as “Inter Find”, located at P.O. Box 309, Oxenford, QLD, 4210
  • The ABN on the original email (18 086 159 195) is not the ABN the website’s domain was registered with (37 086 159 211)

For those who may at first glance assume that Victoria Tourism is in fact Victoria’s official tourism body, then the Queensland postal address they provide should make it clear that is not the case.

Another update for 2017

The organisation behind the Victoria Tourism website has recently began sending out more emails, requesting businesses check their details on a new website titled HotelFind – www.hotelfind.com.au.

An example of one of the Hotel Find emails is below:

HotelFind

Again, it is unclear if there is a cost involved in claiming or updating a listing.

On its website, HotelFind claims that it is:

“a trusted brand that helps promote accommodation and tourism Australia wide”

This is quite a remarkable statement given that the website has only been online for a few months, and that the website owner, Amanda Stichbury, was fined and convicted by a court in 2014 and also in 2017 for breaching Australian Consumer Law over a series of false billing charges.

Anyone who receives an invitation from HotelFind to check their business details should confirm if there are any costs associated in updating or maintaining their listing.  If costs are involved, the benefit of having a listing on the HotelFind website should be carefully considered.

Some accommodation owners in denial about the internet

Internet
The internet has changed the world

We received an interesting phone call a few weeks ago from a motel in Lakes Entrance, in Victoria’s beautiful Gippsland Lakes area.

This motel had been advertising  on our website for the last 5 years.  In fact, when their annual renewal was due last year, they paid their subscription and sent us an email thanking us, including this comment:

“Travel Victoria is excellent value”

It’s always nice to receive positive feedback from clients, particularly when they feel the return on their small investment with us is good. After all, how many times do you hear people instead complaining that fees are too high!

Anyway, the caller from that motel announced that he had recently taken over ownership of the property.  He said that he was unhappy with how the former owners were paying for all this advertising with multiple websites on the internet, and that he was going to change all that.  While he said our $70 annual fee was not large, he said all these small internet advertising expenses do add up.  Therefore we were told that our services, along with a number of others, were no longer required.

Today we did a search for that motel on Google, and found that the new owner had pulled it off virtually every single website that the motel used to have paid advertising on.  Some of the search results Google currently shows are to websites the motel has been removed from, but those those pages are now non-existent, so Google will eventually stop showing those listings.  So all that is really left is the motel’s own dedicated website, a range of free listings on low quality directory websites, and of course it can be found on TripAdvisor.

If potential guests wanted to do further investigation on the internet about that motel, they could be easily forgiven for thinking it had closed down.  The last review on TripAdvisor was 6 months ago, and so the only thing of any significance left for that motel on the internet is its own website, which people may assume hasn’t been updated for a long time.

One possible theory we have is that the new owner is someone that has little faith in the usefulness of the internet.  Perhaps one of those old school of motel owners who always placed advertising within magazines or in brochures that you see at a local visitor information centre, and still believes that’s the only useful way to promote accommodation.  The world has changed, and these days people of all ages, from all over the world, use the internet as their preferred method of planning travel and browsing accommodation to stay in.  Sure, there is a place for advertising in print media, but accommodation owners are living in the past if they think the internet can simply be ignored as a fad or purely an entertainment medium.

Another theory we have is that the new owner may have knowledge and appreciation of the internet, but not about internet marketing.  So they may simply assume is all they need for their motel is a website to cater for those people using the internet. The problem with this way of thinking is that unless someone does a specific search for this motel by its exact name, its website will not be found.  People will tend to do more general Google searches, like Lakes Entrance accommodation or motels in Lakes Entrance, and thus it is extremely unlikely the motel’s small website is going to feature anywhere near the top of the search results returned.  In fact, the Google results for those search terms will be dominated by some of websites which this motel has specifically withdrawn from advertising on!

Another point to consider is that more and more accommodation providers are offering potential guests the convenience of instant, real-time online booking facilities, either via their own website or through a third party agent.  A motel owner, such as our former client from Lakes Entrance, who is actively reducing their internet presence, is bucking the trend of consumer demand for online information and booking facilities.

When it comes to promoting an accommodation business, the internet should be embraced, not dismissed. We live in a changing world, and businesses need to keep up with the times.

 

 

Fined and convicted – Amanda Stichbury & Special Days Pty Ltd false billing scam

Over the years, a significant number of businesses in Australia, including accommodation and tourism operators, have received unsolicited bills in the mail for advertising they never ordered.   This is known as “false billing” and its aim is to trick businesses into paying money.  It is similar to someone unexpectedly turning up at your door with a bag of goods and requesting that you pay for it, even though you didn’t place an order.

A group of companies that are based in Queensland – Special Days Pty Ltd, Accommodation Find Pty Ltd and Internet Find Pty Ltd – have set up a large number of Australian travel tourism websites, as well as websites covering industries such as child care, education, churches, accountancy and entertainment.  The director of those companies is Amanda Stichbury and a significant number of business listings featured on her company’s websites were never ordered by the business owner.  Many business owners first learn about their listings on those websites when they receive a document that looks similar to a bill, with payment instructions.  Due to the fact some businesses are listed without their knowledge on multiple websites, there are some business owners who end up receiving many separate documents that resemble bills, causing them confusion and even distress.

Special Days Pty Ltd and Accommodation Find Pty Ltd have published a number of websites that specifically  relate to the tourism industry in Victoria including:

  • VicTourism – www.victourism.com.au (see our post about VicTourism)
  • AccommodationVIC – www.accommodationvic.com.au (see our post about AccommodationVIC)
  • Holiday Great Ocean Road – www.holidaygreatoceanroad.com (see our post about HolidayGreatOceanRoad)

The Checkout is a consumer affairs show produced by the ABC.  It aired a segment on 11th June 2015 about false billing scams, including those perpetrated by Special Days Pty Ltd, Accommodation Find Pty Ltd and Internet Find Pty Ltd. A video of the relevant segment (from series 3, episode 9) can be viewed at https://dl.dropbox.com/s/06ecfueoibuyv8y/FUTube.mp4 which also includes an interview with a recipient of an unsolicited bill sent from their Church Find website.

In terms of prosecution for these sorts of activities, Special Days Pty Ltd, and its director Amanda Stichbury, were fined $18,000 for breaching Australian Consumer Law in regards to an unsolicited invoice issued to Griffith University EcoCentre for advertising on the “Education QLD” website.  The laws breached include:

  1. Assertion of right to payment for unsolicited goods or services (Australian Consumer Law, section 162(3))
  2. Making a false or misleading representation that the person making the representation has a sponsorship, affiliation or approval (Australian Consumer Law, section 151(1)(h))

As well as the monetary fine, Amanda Stichbury was ordered to pay almost $1,600 in professional and court costs.

The Department of Fair Trading also gained recorded convictions against Amanda Stichbury and Special Days Pty Ltd in relation to that matter.

While this is a good result for those businesses who keep receiving unsolicited requests for payment in the post or via email, it appears that Special Days Pty Ltd and its director Amanda Stichbury are still operating their network of websites in question.

The accommodation industry publication, AccomNews, published a special report today, strongly warning businesses to beware of being scammed by bogus invoices. Their special report includes a detailed analysis of the false billing scam perpetrated by Amanda Stichbury and her companies using their network of websites.

Amanda Stichbury, Special Days Pty Ltd
Beware of being scammed – Amanda Stichbury and Special Days Pty Ltd fined and convicted under Australian Consumer Law

 

This is a timely reminder for businesses not to blindly pay any advertising bills they receive, and ensure they really have ordered what they are being invoiced for. It is important for all businesses to maintain a careful record of all advertising arrangements in place and to check all incoming renewal invoices with their records to verify the authenticity and authorisation of those bills.

Businesses also need to carefully look at who is issuing the invoices, as many of Amanda Stichbury’s websites have very similar names to organisations with well-know names, creating confusion between them.  For example, a number of business owners have reported they thought bills from Amanda Stichbury’s Vic Tourism website were directly related to Victoria’s official government organisation Tourism Victoria, and that is certainly not the case.

References and related false billing reports:

Unsolicited emails being sent to industry
Visit Canberra
“…a company by the name of Internet Find Pty Ltd is once again sending unsolicited emails to tourism operators…(for listings on) acttourism.com.au and tourismcanberra.com… Amanda Stichbury, the director of these companies, was fined almost $20,000 earlier this year for breaching Australian Consumer Law…”
http://tourism.act.gov.au/industry-link/2015/09/unsolicited-emails-being-sent-to-industry/

Important notification for tourism operators
Visit Canberra
“…tourismcanberra.com (is) sending an email to an ACT tourism operators requesting payment of a 12 month subscription fee…other State/Territory Tourism Offices have reported similar communications being sent to tourism operators either via email or post…”
http://tourism.act.gov.au/industry-link/2013/01/important-notification-for-tourism-operators/

Warning to A.C.T. tourism operators – Special Days Pty Ltd
Visit Canberra
“…tourism operators across several states and territories are once again being targeted with unsolicited emails requesting them to claim their business listing on a number of directory listing websites…Accommodation Find Pty Ltd, Internet Find Pty Ltd and Special Days Pty Ltd…(we) strongly advise against paying any fees to companies you are unfamiliar with…”
http://tourism.act.gov.au/industry-link/2017/02/warning-to-act-tourism-operators-special-days-pty-ltd/

Why do I keep receiving invoices from Special Days / Internet Find / Accommodation Find / Travel Guide / etc asking for payment?
Australian Tourism Data Warehouse
“…these are scam invoices and should be discarded immediately…Special Days Pty Ltd operate under a variety of names and continue to make contact with ATDW members seeking payment for having a listing on one of their many websites…”
http://atdw.com.au/tourism-operator/operator-support/faq/

Special Report: Beware of being scammed
AccomNews
“..a number of accommodation providers have…(received)…invoices for unauthorised website and advertising listings…complaints have been made to the Department of Fair Trading and it has gained convictions of Special Days P/L and Amanda Stichbury…”
http://www.accomnews.com.au/2015/08/special-report-beware-of-being-scammed/

Unauthorised website listings worry resorts
AccomNews
“…receiving invoices for unauthorised website listings…invoices, overdue notices and reminders for one accommodation provider dating back to 2009…letter of demand that threatened legal action if the amount claimed was not paid…complaints have been made to the Department of Fair Trading…”
http://www.accomnews.com.au/2014/03/unauthorised-website-list-ings-worry-resorts/

Important News From Tourism Victoria
Mornington Peninsula Regional Tourism
“…some Victorian tourism operators are receiving a letter from victourism.com.au, together with an invoice asking for payment of a 12 month listing…victourism.com.au and Vic Tourism are not related in any way to Tourism Victoria…”
http://industry.visitmorningtonpeninsula.org/NewsEvents/LatestNews/TabId/618/ArtMID/1589/ArticleID/14/Important-News-From-Tourism-Victoria.aspx

Vic Tourism scam
Travel Daily
“…a dodgy letter and invoice…seeking payment for a 12-month listing on a Vic Tourism website…the letter is a scam…”
http://www.traveldaily.com.au/news/vic-tourism-scam/149814

Dodgy invoices in Qld
Travel Daily
“…shonky invoices are being sent from Queensland Tourism… payments for an annual website listing on QLDTourism.com are sought, which are not legitimate…”
http://www.traveldaily.com.au/news/dodgy-invoices-in-qld/172163

South Australian Tourism Commission invoice scam alert
Travel Daily
“…unsolicited bills for a listing on southaustraliatourism.com.au…which come from a business confusingly called South Australia Tourism…”
http://www.traveldaily.com.au/news/satc-invoice-scam-alert/215638

Scams and Frauds
Hosted Accommodation Australia Ltd
“…invoices…seeking payment for the amount of $99 for listing on websites which started with the word accommodation…the listings were not authorised…this is a fraudulent practice…lodge a complaint to the Office of Fair Trading…”
http://www.hostedaccommodationaustralia.com.au/news/Scams-and-Frauds.aspx

Fraudulent Invoices
Hosted Accommodation Australia Ltd
“…invoices are again being sent to members throughout Australia seeking payment for the amount of $99 for listing on websites which are registered to a company named Special Days Pty Ltd…if you have not authorised a listing for your business then the charge is fraudulent…”
http://www.hostedaccommodationaustralia.com.au/news/Fraudulent-Invoices.aspx

Warning Notification to NSW Tourism Operators
Destination NSW
“…carefully check any invoices relating to instances of this domain,
www.accommodationnsw.com.au…”
http://www.destinationnsw.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Digital-FAQs-2013-14x.pdf

Important update – warning notification
Destination NSW
“…have received several complaints…requesting payment for product listings featured on www.newsouthwalestourism.com…(it) is not part of the Destination NSW greater distribution network…if you have received an invoice from this company, simply disregard it…”
http://www.portstephenstourism.com.au/important-update-warning-notification-nsw-tourism-operators/

Important Advice
eTourism
…an email requesting renewal of a subscription for etourismaustralia.com…
http://www.etourism.com.au/news/important-advice-etourismaustraliacom/20

Special Days Pty Ltd – scammers
Alligator Creek Bed & Breakfast
“…alerting you to a scam…received a letter and tax invoice for $99…”
https://www.facebook.com/alligatorcreekbandb/posts/444330738965127

Received a remittance advice from Internet Find Pty Ltd
Adrian’s Autos
“…never requested to be on this site (Internet Find)…be careful you don’t pay invoices you never requested…”
https://www.facebook.com/adriansautos/posts/804666259631467

Another scam invoice from QLD Tourism
Sandgate Historical Society
“…Amanda Stichbury, please note that we will not be paying this one either…we hope the QLD Department of Justice and the ACCC come calling very soon…”
https://www.facebook.com/sandgatehistorical.soc/posts/500520660004764

Be wary of SouthAustraliaTourism.com.au
The Original Open Market Inc
“…that web site is duping people by the almost exact name…(we) fell for it and got billed for a listing on their site…”
https://www.facebook.com/originalopenmarket/posts/906162669405971

Scam alert – beware!
Hahndorf Hill Winery
“…please note that this (request for confirmation and payment for a website listing) is NOT from the South Australian Tourism Commission…”
https://www.facebook.com/HahndorfHillWinery/posts/1213582885335063

Warning Notification to NSW Tourism Operators
Randwick City Tourism
“…several complaints from tourism operators in relation to tax invoices requesting payment for product listings featured on www.sydneytourism.com.au…these websites have no affiliation with Destination NSW nor do their parent companies Accommodation Find Pty Ltd, Internet Find Pty Ltd and Special Days Pty Ltd…if you have received an invoice from any of these websites, please do not pay it…”
https://www.facebook.com/randwickcitytourism/posts/1181937995174938

Complaints from tourism operators
Goulburn River Valley Tourism
“…complaints from tourism operators in relation to emails from Victoria Tourism asking to review business details on their website – www.victoriatourism.com.au…this website has no affiliation with Visit Victoria nor do their parent companies Accommodation Find Pty Ltd, Internet Find Pty Ltd and Special Days Pty Ltd…if you have received an invoice or an email from any of these websites, please disregard it…”
https://www.facebook.com/goulburnrivervalleytourism/posts/1402717523085659

Warning
Queensland Tourism Industry Council
“…industry operators received hoax invoices from ‘Qld Tourism’ website…”
https://twitter.com/TheQTIC/status/687502431924674560

Warning: Hoax Email From Qld Tourism
HiRUM Software Solutions
“…some Gold Coast Tourism members have received an invoice from an organisation calling themselves Qld Tourism (www.qldtourism.com) for $95…using unapproved photos and content…”
http://www.hirum.com.au/blog/hoax-email-qld-tourism/

False billing scams
The Checkout – ABC TV
“…deliberately misleading and designed to look like an invoice to get people to pay…”
http://www.abc.net.au/tv/thecheckout/episodes/s03ep09.htm

Accommodation Gold Coast – 1300 656 789
Reverse Australia

“…these people are frauds…you get these bills in the mail for advertising you never signed up to…”
http://www.reverseaustralia.com/lookup/1300656789/

Accommodation Find – 1800 199 863
Reverse Australia

“…us and many other businesses received bills for advertising we simply did not sign up or agree to…it’s not fair billing people for stuff they didn’t ask for…”
http://www.reverseaustralia.com/lookup/1800199863/

Warning to all small businesses
Books Alive Bookkeeping
“…there is a company that is putting businesses onto a website without legal permission and then invoicing them for this privilege – www.accountantfind.com.au – it is hard enough with budgeting dollars as it is with companies like this acting illegally…”
https://www.facebook.com/BooksAliveBookkeeping/posts/1145148798842557

Increasing business exposure through Facebook

With the high proliferation of social media usage these days, any business that wishes to increase their market share needs a visible social media presence.

Facebook is currently the world’s largest social network, having been first launched in 2004. For most businesses, Facebook should be at the top of the list when looking to increase exposure through social media.

A business page on Facebook prominently displays the number of “likes” by people visiting the actual page or its embedded feed on other websites.

Some business owners treat the number of Facebook likes as a status symbol whereby a large figure is a clear statement that not only is the business well-known, but that it is also much loved by the public. They also believe that an increasingly large number of likes will create snow-ball effect in terms of popularity, as visitors to the Facebook page will be impressed by the significant number of likes and feel that they too must join the masses and also like the page.

In order to increase the number of like on a business Facebook page, business owners may employ a number of methods. In terms of gaining popularity through use of the internet, owners can:

  1. Include links to their Facebook page on their own website, thus providing an easy way for website visitors to also add to the tally of Facebook likes. This method is particularly effective for websites that receive a good number and diverse range of visitors.
  2. Highlight their Facebook page through email postings, blog postings, or comments by their Facebook page on other Facebook pages.
  3. Promote their Facebook page through Facebook’s promotional services. If provided with a daily advertising budget, Facebook can target Facebook users whom it thinks might find a business page interesting, as well as allowing the business owner to restrict the promotion to a certain demographic. A “suggested page” box promoting the page will appear on Facebook for designated people, encouraging them to view and/or like that page.
  4. Buy Facebook likes. There is a whole industry that is devoted to selling businesses Facebook “likes” in bulk for an insanely small amount of money. For example, one such service we came across promises to deliver 10,000 page likes for just $200. Using Facebook’s official promotional services could typically cost 20 times that amount, or $4,000.

While buying Facebook likes from third parties may seem to be a great cost-effective solution to build up a business profile, it can either be a waste of money or cause a business credibility issues. This is because those bulk bought likes usually come from a massive pool of fake Facebook profiles that promoters have at their disposal. The actions of these fake Facebook accounts look even more dodgy when many are of a completely different demographic that would typically like a particular page. Would you really expect that a 70 year old grandmother from Iceland is going to like the Facebook page of a skateboard shop in Mildura?

The consequences for businesses buying artificial likes are:

  • It can put genuine people off liking that page. Since all these profiles are fake, there will be no further interaction on that business’s page other than the initial like. Interested people visiting a Facebook page may be very suspicious of liking it if they see it has something like a staggering 50,000 likes with virtually no one liking or interacting with specific posts.
  • It does nothing for brand exposure. After all, exposing a business to tens of thousands of people who don’t exist is pointless. They can’t even tell their Facebook friends about it as they are fake too!
  • It won’t generate any engagement with a target audience. A business may have some amazing photos or information to share on Facebook, but with no genuine people listening, what’s the point?
  • No generation of leads or sales. Fake people don’t buy things nor do they visit websites linked within Facebook postings. So if the ultimate aim of the business is to generate income, then marketing to fake people is not going to generate any return.
  • Many likes that were paid for may disappear overnight. Facebook regularly runs checks to weed out and remove likes by what it deems to be fake people. Businesses may be wasting money buying what ends up being very short term likes.

You can easily identify a business Facebook page that has built up most of its likes by purchasing likes in bulk from people that don’t really exist.

Compare these two examples of Australian travel Facebook pages, illustrated below. They are business pages with a similar number of likes and regular daily postings. The big difference between those pages is the “people talking about this” figure which refers to the number of people actually engaged with that page and its postings.

In general, a page with a good level of engagement gets a figure of between 5% to 10% of the total number of likes. Anything beyond 10% is outstanding. In this first example, the engagement figure is 9.5% which is quite good. It appears to be a Facebook page which has been built up from a genuine and real user base with an ongoing interest, so the number of likes is a good representation of its popularity. In the second example, the ratio of engagements to likes is an appalling 0.2%.  You can be almost guaranteed that most of those likes are generated from fake profiles which have no interaction with the page other than the initial like.

Facebook business page
A Facebook business page with likes by real people that interact with the page.

 

Facebook business page
A Facebook business page which appears to have most of its likes bought in bulk using fake Facebook profiles that obviously don’t interact with the page.

 

For businesses who want to increase their exposure on Facebook, don’t bother with fake people and likes – after all, they cannot buy anything, they won’t interact, nor can they spread the word to their friends. Facebook pages that are mainly made up with fake likes can be easily identified and may create a negative impression of that business. Businesses who want to build up a good Facebook profile should therefore only seek real likes by real people.

Holiday Great Ocean Road & www.holidaygreatoceanroad.com false billing scam

Accommodation businesses operating within the Great Ocean Road region in Victoria have been on the receiving end of a false billing scam. It has been operating since 2012, resulting in bills being sent out for unauthorised advertising on a tourism website.

Invoices are being sent out by Holiday Great Ocean Road for advertising on the www.holidaygreatoceanroad.com website.  A sample of a typical invoice they post out in the mail is shown below.

Invoice - Holiday Great Ocean Road - www.holidaygreatoceanroad.com
An example of an invoice sent out by Holiday Great Ocean Road – www.holidaygreatoceanroad.com (recipient’s details blanked out)

Note the key characteristics of this invoice:

  1. It originates from a company titled Special Days Pty Ltd which is based in Sydney
  2. The company’s ABN is 37 086 159 211
  3. Their postal address is PO Box 4050 Parramatta NSW 2124
  4. Their billing enquiry phone number is 1300 656 789
  5. Their FAX number is 1800 198 388
  6. The invoice amount is $108.90 (i.e. $99 plus GST)
  7. The advertising commencement date, conclusion date or duration is not stated
  8. In order to convince the recipient of its authenticity, the “reference” box states the name of who has apparently authorised the listing, usually without a surname

Most people who receive an invoice like this never actually signed up for a listing with Holiday Great Ocean Road.  The first they find out about it is when a bill arrives in the mail. If they ignore the bill, they may receive more of the same invoices in the future.

Despite the fact an advertisement on Holiday Great Ocean Road has usually never been ordered by the recipient of the invoice, a cover letter is included which includes the following claims:

  1. “I emailed you several times and phoned your business but I was unable to get a  response.”  This statement is generally false as most accommodation providers have never been contacted by phone or email prior to the invoice arriving in the post.
  2. “Once the listing is deleted you can lose your ranking on holidaygreatoceanroad.com for key words as well as your Google ranking as the site is optimized for your establishment.”  This is a very misleading claim. Firstly, the www.holidaygreatoceanroad.com website receives so few visitors (not even Alexa.com has any data for it at the moment) so it is unlikely that a listing, or lack of one, will make any difference to a business. Secondly, because www.holidaygreatoceanroad.com is so poorly ranked in Google, there is only minuscule Google ranking value provided in the form of a link to an accommodation provider’s own website.

Accommodation listings on the Holiday Great Ocean Road website are typically created by copying information, including wording and photos, found on other websites that an accommodation provider is listed on.  This process may be automated which means vast numbers of listings can be created with very little time and effort. If this data collection process occurred a long time ago, it may mean information they are displaying can be quite out of date. This may negatively impact upon your business or mislead people who do happen to view your listing on the Holiday Great Ocean Road website.

Unfortunately, some accommodation providers have paid the invoice for advertising they never ordered due to confusion over business names. The Holiday Great Ocean Road / www.holidaygreatoceanroad.com name and website address may be confused with a well-established business with exactly the same name but different website address – Holiday Great Ocean Road / www.holidaygor.com.au. It must be stated that the latter (www.holidaygor.com.au) is an award-winning and reputable accommodation booking service which has operated with the utmost of integrity since its commencement in 2002.

It is extremely important that accommodation providers keep current list of all organisations they are advertising their accommodation with to ensure that any false bills, particularly those with similar names to reputable businesses, are quickly identified. Should there is any doubt about the authenticity of a bill, contact the sender and ask for proof of authorisation.

For more information refer to the false billing scams information page on the ScamWatch website which has been set-up by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC).

If you’ve unintentionally paid money to Holiday Great Ocean Road, or even if you just receive one of their unauthorised bills in the mail, you can lodge a report with the ACCC by visiting their report a scam page.  Specify “false billing” as the scam type in your report.

VIC Tourism & www.victourism.com.au false billing scam

A new false billing scam is actively targeting those who manage accommodation properties in Victoria. Bills are being posted out for unauthorised advertising on a website which bears a name very similar to Tourism Victoria – Victoria’s official tourism body.

Unauthorised bills are being sent out by VIC Tourism for advertising on the www.victourism.com.au website.  Below is a sample of an invoice they post out in the mail to many accommodation businesses.

Invoice - VIC Tourism – www.victourism.au
An example of an invoice sent out by VIC Tourism – www.victourism.com.au (recipient’s details blanked out)

Note the key characteristics of this invoice:

  1. It originates from a company titled Accommodation Find which trades as QLDTourism.com and is located in Queensland
  2. The company’s ABN is 18 086 159 195
  3. Their postal address is PO Box 1601 Oxenford QLD 4210
  4. Their billing enquiry phone number is 1800 199 863
  5. The invoice amount is $95.00
  6. The advertising period is not specified, just the vague mention of a “12 month subscription”
  7. In order to convince the recipient of its authenticity, there is a box titled “authorisation name” that specifies the name of who has supposedly authorised the listing, usually without a surname

To ensure that in the eyes of the law this tax invoice is regarded an optional invitation to advertise, there is wording on the invoice which states “this invoice is only payable if you wish to subscribe or renew your existing subscription for the product”.

Most people who receive an invoice like this never actually signed up for a listing with VIC Tourism.  The first they find out about it is when a bill arrives in the mail. If they ignore the bill, they may receive subsequent invoices at regular intervals in the future.

Accommodation listings on the VIC Tourism website are typically created by copying information, including wording and photos, found on other websites that an accommodation provider is listed on.  This process may be automated which means vast numbers of listings can be created with very little time and effort. If this data collection process occurred a long time ago, it may mean information they are displaying can be quite out of date. This may negatively impact upon your business or mislead people who do happen to view your listing on the VIC Tourism website.

Leigh Harry, CEO of Tourism Victoria
Leigh Harry, CEO of Tourism Victoria, urges all Victorian businesses not to fall for the ‘VIC Tourism’ false billing scam.

The way the advertising bills have been sent out has convinced some accommodation providers into thinking that VIC Tourism is the Victorian government’s official tourism organisation Tourism Victoria. This has resulted in some people paying the bill because they believe they are registering their accommodation for world-wide exposure and endorsement through the state’s official tourism body.

The chief executive officer of Tourism Victoria, Leigh Harry, has issued a strong warning through several media outlets to all businesses in Victoria to be on the look out for what he describes as “a dodgy letter and invoice” which seeks payment for an unsolicited 12-month listing on the unofficial and low-traffic Vic Tourism website.  Mr Harry has warned that the letters and invoices being sent out by Vic Tourism are “a scam”, and they are not related in any way whatsoever to Victoria’s official tourism organisation.

It is critically important that all accommodation providers keep an accurate list of all organisations they advertise their accommodation with. This ensures that any false bills, particularly those with names very similar to official organisations, are quickly identified. If there is any doubt about the authenticity of a bill, contact the issuer immediately and ask for proof of authorisation.

For further information, refer to the false billing scams information page on the ScamWatch website which has been set-up by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC).

If you have inadvertently paid money to VIC Tourism, or even if you just receive one of their unauthorised bills in the mail, you can lodge a report with the ACCC by visiting their report a scam page.  Specify “false billing” as the scam type in your report.

Accommodation VIC & www.accommodationvic.com.au false billing scam

A false billing scam which began in 2010 is still targeting accommodation providers in Victoria. It involves sending out bills for unauthorised advertising on a travel website.

The unauthorised bills are sent out by Accommodation VIC for advertising on the www.accommodationvic.com.au website.  Refer below to a sample of the invoices they post out in the mail to accommodation businesses.

Invoice - Accommodation VIC - www.accommodationvic.com.au
An example of an invoice sent out by Accommodation VIC – www.accommodationvic.com.au (recipient’s details blanked out)

Note the key characteristics of this invoice:

  1. It originates from a company titled Special Days Pty Ltd which is based in Sydney
  2. The company’s ABN is 37 086 159 211
  3. Their postal address is PO Box 4050 Parramatta NSW 2124
  4. Their billing enquiry phone number is 1300 656 789
  5. Their FAX number is 1800 198 388
  6. The invoice amount is $99.00
  7. The advertising period is not stated, just a mention of an “annual website listing”
  8. In order to convince the recipient of its authenticity, the “reference” box lists the name of the person who has apparently authorised the listing, usually without a surname

In order to legally disguise this tax invoice as an optional invitation to advertise, there is wording on the invoice which states “this invoice is only payable if you wish to subscribe or renew your existing subscription for the product”.

Most people who receive an invoice of this type have never signed up for a listing with Accommodation VIC.  The first they find out about it is when a bill arrives in the mail. If they ignore the bill, they will typically receive another one sometime in the future, despite the fact wording on the letter attached to the bill states that the listing “automatically expires if unpaid”.

It has been reported that at least one business who actually did end up paying the $99 annual listing fee then received another bill in the mail only 6 months later for another $99. As there are no starting and ending dates for the listing period specified on the invoice, just vague wording of an “annual website listing”, it is unclear exactly what period the listing fee covers.

Accommodation listings on the Accommodation VIC website are typically created by copying information, including wording and photos, found on other websites that an accommodation provider is listed on.  This process may be automated which means vast numbers of listings can be created with very little time and effort. If this data collection process occurred a long time ago, it may mean information they are displaying can be quite out of date. This may negatively impact upon your business or mislead people who do happen to come across your listing on the Accommodation VIC website.

Some people simply pay the bill they receive because:

  1. They have recently taken over the business. When the bill arrives, they assume the advertising must have been ordered in the past by the previous owners and therefore the listing is effective and good value.
  2. The website name is similar to one that they currently list with.  In the confusion, they simply pay it, wrongly assuming it’s their authorised advertiser.
  3. They are too busy to spend much time investigating it.  Given that the bill is for a relatively small sum, they decide it is more cost-effective just to pay it and get it out of the way rather than conduct an extensive assessment of it.
  4. Competition with other accommodation listed. If other accommodation in their local area is displayed on the www.accommodationvic.com.au website, they may feel pressured to keep the listing.  However it is important to realise that not only are many of listings on Accommodation VIC unauthorised, but that website receives only a small number of visitors compared to other similar websites.

It is important that accommodation providers keep an up to date list of all organisations they have advertised their accommodation with to ensure that any unauthorised bills are quickly detected. If there is any doubt about the authenticity of a bill, simply contact the issuer and ask for proof of authorisation.

For more information refer to the false billing scams information page on the ScamWatch website which has been set-up by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC).

If you’ve unintentionally paid money to Accommodation VIC, or even if you just receive one of their unauthorised bills in the mail, you can lodge a report with the ACCC by visiting their report a scam page.  Specify “false billing” as the scam type in your report.

Some tourism operators are not taking the internet seriously

cruise
Cost cutting by removing your tourism website is not the answer

Isn’t it frustrating when you see some tourism operators dismiss the value of an internet presence when most travellers are now using the web and social media to plan and book their trips?

Consider this recent example.  A cruise operator that takes passengers on wilderness cruises through a remote part of Gippsland surrounded by a rugged national park (we won’t name them here to protect their privacy) has had their details and website listed on many tourism websites including that of Parks Victoria. Recently, the cruise operator’s website went off-line, so we found their email address and alerted them to the fact.  The reply we got back (we’ve edited it for clarity) is below:

Unfortunately our web site has been discontinued –
not enough hits to justify the cost

What an unexpected reply!

Firstly, the cost of a .com.au domain name, plus simple web hosting with a reputable Australian provider, will set the cruise operator back around $70 per year. How can this tourism business justify removing their internet presence to save the tiny annual website operating cost of $70? You may wonder how many thousands of dollars they were instead spending on brochures to put on the shelf of the local visitor information centre or the big bucks they were splurging on colour newspaper ads.

Secondly, their statement that the number of hits didn’t justify the web presence is unqualified. How many hits did they want? Looking at the counter they used to have on their website, we estimate they got about 1,000 visitors (real people, not web robots) per year.  For a small operator in a remote area, that’s not too bad, particularly as there’s much potential for future growth if they start doing some more active promotion on the web.  All they needed was the right people to come across the website, and they could have had booked out cruises galore.

Let’s be really clear about this – an internet presence in the form of a website is one of the cheapest ways of giving your tourism business exposure in the travel market.  Once you have a website, people will have something concrete to reference on related websites. Here at Travel Victoria, we showcased their business on our tours and cruise pages, for free, giving them good exposure. Now we have nothing to link to, so their listing gets deleted as we have no authoritative source of information to present to our website visitors.  Same goes for social media.  People who want to discuss or share details of this amazing cruise through one of Victoria’s most pristine wilderness areas simply have nothing official to refer others to. People want to instantly see the cruise schedule, costs and photos of the journey so they can see if it is of interest to them.  The cruise operator’s website could also be used to inspire other people who wouldn’t normally do that sort of thing to actually experience it.

With the low cost of domain registration and website hosting, tourism businesses should consider an internet presence as being mandatory for their survival. The last thing they should be doing is wielding the cost-cutting axe to save a tiny $70 by killing off their website and effectively their entire internet presence.

An off-line website implies you’re closed for business

closed
People may assume if your website is down then you’re closed for business

It’s remarkable that in this day and age of the internet, where information about virtually anything anywhere in the world is available online, that some businesses in the travel and tourism industry regard a reliable web presence as something of little importance.  This is particularly relevant to those businesses whose operations pre-date the internet – some simply don’t appreciate how many travellers nowadays expect to instantly find information on the internet, at any time of the day or night.

Consider this example we experienced with a tourism business in Victoria.

A river cruising company (which we won’t name specifically), has operated on one of Victoria’s great scenic rivers for many decades.  Up until 2009, they had a simple website detailing their cruise schedule, what you’ll see along the way and a photo gallery. They let their web hosting expire (cost cutting in the height of the global financial crisis perhaps?), and since then they have had no dedicated web presence.

Many travel websites gave free exposure to this cruising company, (including us here at Travel Victoria), inviting people to click on the link to their website for further details about their cruises, their timetables and contact details. However, because the cruise company abandoned their web presence in 2009, these links went nowhere, and many people were simply left with the impression that the company was no longer operating. And if people think a business is not operating, they will just try elsewhere for what they need.

We cannot emphasise this enough – if your website goes off-line for an extended period of time, people will simply assume you’re no longer in business.

And if people think you may still be in business, you really cannot expect them to take on the role of a web detective, trying to piece together bits of information from various sources, in order to find out what should have been on your website.

As an experiment, using ONLY the internet, we attempted to find out the cruise timetable of this Victorian cruise company which took their website off-line in 2009.  Many websites where this company was mentioned simply provided a link to the off-line website for further information, so that was useless to us.  Others detailed prices and timetables that were dated from many years ago, as they obviously couldn’t get up to date information from the web.  This raised questions as to how accurate the information was, given it was years old.  We even tried the website of the local visitor information centre where the cruise company is based, but alas, they had few details other than a link to the off-line cruise company’s website. So we ended up emailing the visitor information centre asking for details about the cruises. We got a reply back two days later as they probably had to try to contact the cruise company to get the latest information, although to be fair, we did email the visitor information centre on a weekend. But still, one may ask if someone planning their trip is willing to wait two days for information that they could have in seconds if the cruise company continued their web presence? Many people would have probably tried another business in the area or maybe somewhere else in Victoria. That’s tourist dollars lost to that business and also to the town.

We then decided to email the cruise company directly and advise them that their website was off-line to see their response. To begin with, this became another intensive web detective crusade as we tried to find out their email address and we had no idea if the email address they published 3 years ago was still the one they used.  As it turns out, they did get our email, and said they said they are working on a new website. We can only assume they’ve been working on it on for the last 3 years!

Of course, one has to wonder why they didn’t just let their old website continue to run beyond 2009, update only the most critical information as needed, and then replace it once they’d finalised their new site?

With web hosting by reputable Australian companies at very affordable prices, many offering plans of less than $90 per year, there is simply no way to justify a cost-cutting exercise of having your website off-line for 3 years when you’re in the very competitive tourism industry and one in which people expect instant access to information when planning their travels.