They may look like invoices sent to business owners for posters they may need to display in the workplace. But we think of them as unvoices – deceptively worded solicitations that tried to sell companies posters that are readily available for free. A law enforcement action just settled by the FTC and Florida Attorney General offers tips on protecting your business from this form of B2B deception.

According to the FTC and AG, four defendants with ties to Texas and Florida – Starwood Consulting, Starwood Capital, Corporate Poster Supply, and Thomas Henry Fred, Jr. – sent letters to businesses across the country with the goal of tricking them into paying $84 for posters about labor practices. To perfect their pitch, the letters had the look of invoices from government agencies or other authorities and warned recipients that they had two choices: 1) buy the $84 posters; or 2) face hefty fines. In fact, posters similar to the ones in question were available for free from relevant government agencies. But according to the lawsuit, many businesses forked over $84 under the misimpression that they had to buy them from the defendants.

The proposed settlement in the case includes provisions to prevent the defendants from using similar tactics to injure consumers in the future, including a ban on unsolicited direct mail. Based on the defendants’ financial condition, the $6 million judgment will be partially suspended upon the payment of $1.2 million.

What can other businesses do to protect themselves from B2B deception?

What’s your sign? Investigate first. If you think you may need to post signs, check with the relevant government agency. But don’t use a phone number or URL listed in a solicitation you get in the mail. Do your research and go to the legitimate .gov website for more information.

Consider free options. It’s true that certain agencies may require businesses to display signs on the premises about subjects like labor practices. But if a poster is required, most likely it’s available for free from the agency’s website. One helpful resource is the Department of Labor’s FirstStep Poster Advisor, which walks businesses through industry-specific posters required by that agency and provides the signs at no charge to employers. You can order them online, call the agency toll-free for copies, or even download them directly and print them out. Why pay for something your business can get for free?

Alert colleagues in the business community. Are you active in a trade association or local business group? Enlist them to educate members about similar solicitations and other forms of B2B deception, including bogus office supply invoices and imposter phone calls that claim your company will be shut down if you don’t pay an immediate fee. Read the FTC brochure Scams and Your Small Business (also available in Spanish) for tips on spotting B2B rip-offs.

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