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.
Note the key characteristics of this invoice:
It originates from a company titled Special Days Pty Ltd which is based in Sydney
The company’s ABN is 37 086 159 211
Their postal address is PO Box 4050 Parramatta NSW 2124
Their billing enquiry phone number is 1300 656 789
Their FAX number is 1800 198 388
The invoice amount is $99.00
The advertising period is not stated, just a mention of an “annual website listing”
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 If this data collection process occurred a long time ago, it may mean information they are displaying can be quite out of date.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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Australian travel and tourism businesses are regularly the target of scams that are designed to defraud them.
Recently, there’s been a wave of scams directed at those businesses who have registered a trademark. What you get is an unsolicited letter in the post that features an image of your trademark, your personal contact details and a few words about your trademark in an international database. Included with this letter is a remittance slip, effectively convincing you this a bill that you must pay to support your trademark registration.
If you read the small print, the only thing you’ll actually get out of all this, after you pay the exorbitant publication fee which is usually around the $1,000 mark, is having your trademark published on some overseas low profile website.
What these scammers hope is that you’re so busy that you’ll simply pay the invoice without giving too much thought to it. Or that the invoice goes to the accounts department of your organisation, who will be under instruction to ensure the trademark remains registered. After all, if they have your personal name, address and trademark details, it must be a legitimate bill, right? Wrong…all those details can be viewed by any member of the public on the web via the federal government’s official Australian Trade Marks Online Search System (ATMOSS).
The latest flood of trademark invoice scams is coming from IDRTM – International Database of Registered Trade Marks which has a website at www.trademarkpublisher.info. You are then asked to send your payment to this address in Sydney:
Suite 65 Seabridge House
377 Kent Street
SYDNEY NSW 2000
Technically, they are probably not breaking any laws by using terms like “we recommend” and “if you want” and not stamping a “due by” date on the invoice. However, they are hoping that out of the thousands of these they send out, a few people will simply pay without a second thought.
Below is a letter/invoice from IDRTM or TM Publisher, so you can be aware of what’s going on if you receive one of these.
When you’re in the travel business, having a good website is very important as most people use the internet to research and arrange their holidays. Therefore travel businesses find they will require the services of a web designer or developer to create their website initially, then in the future to extend, enhance or completely redevelop it.
Web design or development can be an expensive business. If you choose an organisation with a street office and reception desk, you will certainly feel comfortable about dealing with an organisation that has a solid presence and reputation. However, a significant part of the fees you are charged will have to pay the rent of the premises, the wages of support staff, and of course the upkeep of that colourful tropical fish tank and fancy espresso coffee machine in the foyer.
A significant amount of money can be saved by getting the work done by a skilled freelancer. They typically work from home, and thus don’t need to rent an office or pay wages to support staff. You would generally interact with a freelancer via the internet or phone, perhaps meeting in a public place if there needs to be face to face contact.
Like with all industries, there’s good and bad, and the freelancers of the world are no different. You’ll find some really responsive, talented, hard-working people, and equally, you’ll find some lazy ones whose sole aim is to get as much money out of you as possible, and deliver as little as possible.
It is highly recommended that if you hire a freelancer, you do so through a respected freelance online employment platform such as Elance, Odesk or Freelancer. These systems allow you to track a freelancer’s progress and only pay when the job is completed to your satisfaction. There is also a comprehensive dispute resolution system in place to ensure that at the end of the day, everyone should walk away happy with the job outcome.
Another option is to deal with a freelancer directly. You’ll typically find them by searching on Google and ending up on their website.
When selecting a freelance web designer using the internet, ensure that you:
Look at their website. If they can’t design their own website, what hope do they have of doing yours?
View their portfolio. See if you like their style of work. Take particular note of the dates of the items in their portfolio to ensure you aren’t dealing with someone that’s not done much work for a long time.
Check the web designer’s social profiles. Look at their Facebook and Twitter streams to gauge their character.
Do an internet search of the web designer’s business name, personal name, website address and ABN. Then re-do the search followed by negative words such as “problem”, “scam”, “fraud”, “untrustworthy”, etc. This may uncover any unfavourable dealings people have had with this person.
Check if the web designer is an active contributor to popular technical forums. Someone who regularly contributes to such a forum will typically value their reputation in public and will be likely to do the right thing by their clients.
If you’ve taken the plunge and chosen a freelance web designer from the internet, here are some important tips on dealing with them.
Only do business with freelancers from your own country. It makes things easier if you’re both in the same or similar time zone when it comes to communications. Also, if something does go wrong, it is much easier to resolve disputes when you’re both operating under the laws of the same country.
Never, EVER, pay up front for the work. After all, what stops the freelancer then disappearing with your money, never to be seen again? If the freelancer does insist on a payment to kick-start the project, ensure that the payment is done in such a way that you can reverse it. For example, pay with a credit card, so that you have the option of disputing the transaction if the services you’d paid for aren’t provided. Alternatively, use an escrow service such as Australian-based Escrow Angel so that your funds are held by an independent third party and only released to the freelancer once everyone is in agreement over the work completed.
Draw up a clear contract for the project. This contact must stipulate exactly what work needs to be done, any intermediate milestones, and a final delivery date. A clause should also be included to specify that you (and not the web designer) own the intellectual property created for the website. The contract should also state what is to happen if milestones or the delivery date is not met. Do NOT treat an invoice from the freelancer as a contract. Invoices for services are generally vague, lack delivery dates, and are non-binding.
Keep in regular contact with your freelancer. Don’t be afraid to phone, text or email them, requesting details of their progress. After all, you are employing them, so you have every right to know how they are spending the time you pay them for.
There are a number of warning signs to watch out for that can indicate you are dealing with an unreliable freelancer.
Unrealistic promises. The freelancer promises the impossible when taking on the project. Telling you that their work will be so good that you’re bound to win awards galore for their stunning website design may simply be nothing more than hot air to secure your business which they wouldn’t normally have any hope of getting otherwise.
You caught them in between large jobs. The freelancer tells you that normally they are so busy, but by pure chance you’ve approached them at the exact instant that they’ve completed a massive project for a high-profile client. Are you really that lucky? More likely it’s a freelancer that’s been out of work for a while, and they are just trying to create an impression that they are in high demand and that you’re extremely lucky to hire them.
The “too good to be true” quote. You may think that you’ve been very fortunate in receiving an unbelievably cheap quote for your project. However, this may be part of a freelancer’s plan to lock in as many jobs as possible so they have a steady source of work and income during quiet times. There are some freelancers who have serious issues with time and money management. So if they have bills to immediately pay, then any work that has been pre-paid or not due to earn them income for a while, will simply be put on hold. You will be given a smorgasbord of excuses for the delay in your project in order to string it along into the future when they do eventually find they have the time and financial freedom to do some work on it. Keep in mind that if you think your project has been under-quoted, then it will be first in line for being put on the back-burner indefinitely.
Lack of communication. While the project is underway, the freelancer keeps losing your emails or never receives your text messages. If this is happening on a regular basis, it may indicate that they are just stringing your project along while they are doing other things that are earning them more money. Depending on the circumstance, a project that should only take a few weeks to complete may end up taking months or even a year if the freelancer manages to dodge most of your communication.
Requests for progress payments in advance. Progress payments are exactly that – payment after a certain amount of work has been completed. Be very cautious of a freelancer that not only wants a hefty deposit up front before they even start their work, but also demands progress payments in advance for work they are yet to complete. Would you really pay someone that you’ve not met before for something they haven’t supplied yet?
Fake discounts. Watch out for those so-called “discounts” offered by a freelancer during the course of the project if they’ve failed to reach a milestone or project delivery date. While it may seem like generous compensation, you need to keep in mind this is not the same as handing you a cash gift. They are simply offering to take a little less of your money for the project in order to cover up their incompetence. Everyone would much prefer their project to be completed on time rather than receiving a slight discount if the work is delivered months or even a year late. This could all be part of their ploy to string your project along while they attend to more profitable work.
Would you like a free set of steak knives with that? If your freelancer isn’t offering you a “discount” in order to compensate for missing deadlines, another trick is to offer a bonus package of services that you didn’t order and probably don’t want. Be prepared to be showered with offers of free SEO (search engine optimisation) and other services to enhance your website, which you’ll be told are worth thousands of dollars, but which you’ll receive for free. All this is simply part of their plan to string the project along and keep you happy for a bit, without them having to do any work in the short term.
The “I’m a perfectionist” excuse. It’s reverse psychology at work here. Instead of the freelancer confessing they have fallen way behind in their work, they buy almost infinite more time by telling you they are a perfectionist and are putting in so much extra effort to produce something so awesome and amazing for you. In cases like this, you’re made to feel that you should be apologising to the freelancer for pressuring them over the delay, rather than them apologising to you.
Playing the sympathy card. Like most people, a freelancer may have personal problems or situations they have to deal with that can impact on their work. Because you’re employing just one person, any problem a freelancer has will cause the whole project to grind to a halt as there’s no one else to take over. As human beings, we naturally sympathise with others that are enduring personal hardships. However, if the freelancer says they are an only child and have to care for their sick mother this week, how do you know they aren’t in fact down at the beach every day as the weather forecast promised ideal surf conditions?
Using a freelancer can potentially save you a lot of money when it comes to website projects. However, like with all industries, there are a few incompetent freelancers out there, so choose one carefully.
If you have a website, you will no doubt be a regular recipient of offers via email from website marketers who promise that their large company of professionals will make your website feature highly in Google. However, before you take up an offer like that, carefully analyse the contents of their email and think about who they are and what they are offering.
Consider this recent email we received:
There are some issues with this email which indicate that we’re probably not dealing with the large, well-known and internationally-respected organisation they portray themselves to be.
The business development manager of this large company is using a free Gmail address to contact people rather than using something more official and directly linked to the company.
Would you trust this company with the sensitive task of marketing your website when the business development manager writes emails which consist of grammatically incorrect sentences and have words incorrectly capitalised?
Unless this company is Google itself, it cannot claim to get your website to the top of Google. That’s because Google controls how websites are ranked using hundreds of factors that it alone determines. While a website marketer can exert some influence on Google rankings by boosting your website’s standing in some of those areas that Google looks at when analysing your site, they cannot guarantee to have the power to give you the exact ranking you request. Also, Google regularly changes its ranking algorithms, so even if this marketing company did manage to achieve the position you wanted with your website, it could all change tomorrow. The only way to guarantee a spot in Google’s search results is to take out a paid (sponsored) listing with them, and then throw lots of money at the search keywords of your choice.
So be careful with trusting your website’s marketing to an organisation that can’t organise its own email addresses, can’t write proper English and to those that promise to deliver the impossible. You might be disappointed.
As a website owner, you will no doubt be regularly bombarded with offers from SEO (search engine optimisation) experts who guarantee to get your website to No.1 on Google’s search pages. They claim that for a modest fee, they will alter some of the text, rename files or adjust the layout of your website which will cause it to appear at the top of Google’s results for search keywords of your choice, such as “luxury accommodation in Daylesford” or “Ballarat motel”. Sounds too good to be true?
Keep in mind that while SEO experts may have an idea of some of the workings of search engines and how they rank pages, promises of guaranteed No.1 rankings are typically fanciful. This is simply because SEO experts have no control over Google and can thus cannot command Google to rank web pages in certain ways. All they can do is influence the ranking of your website. Google is regularly altering their ranking algorithms to improve their search results, so even if they do manage to get you to No.1 for the keywords of your choice, it may only be short-lived glory.
Here at Travel Victoria, we regularly monitor where some of our web pages rank in Google for some search terms. We have seen big fluctuations on a daily basis in how some of our pages are ranked, while other pages have remained rock steady for years. Today, a Google search for the town of Mansfield actually has us at No.1, but tomorrow we could be at No.5 or even lower. We just don’t know what tomorrow will bring, simply because we do not have direct control over the order in which Google will display web pages.
Another thing to consider when confronted by offers of SEO is who you are dealing with. Most of these SEO offers come via email – typical of people or organisations using the cheapest way of contacting people rather than telephoning or physically posting you something. And many of these emails are sent by people claiming to be senior experts in large corporations which specialise in search engine optimisation. So why are they coming to you from a generic Gmail.com or Hotmail.com email address?
Remember that SEO professionals can offer services which may benefit the ranking of your website, but the best they can do is influence search engines like Google – they cannot make guarantees that you’ll attain a certain ranking and then retain it forever.