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Erin Dodge

Erin Dodge

Erin T. Dodge, is an editor for the Better Business Bureau of Eastern Washington, Northern Idaho and Montana in Spokane. Contact the bureau at spokane.bbb.org.

I worked as an office manager for a small business for more than seven years. Every day, junk mail would arrive and faxes would roll in from dubious sources.

The business was small enough, fewer than 10 employees, that the owner and I were the only authorized check signers. If another employee was opening and sorting mail and any bills looked suspicious, they would bring it to my attention and I’d check it out.

Every business has probably received a look-alike invoice. They sometimes look so close to the real thing that it can be hard to tell that it is actually a solicitation for your business. The business owner I worked for was savvy. She trained me from day one to spot the look-alike invoices by the tell-tale phrases: “This is not a bill” or “This is a solicitation,” usually found near the bottom or on the back.

But what if there is no tell-tale phrase? I can imagine a larger business, without tight controls over its accounts payable department, could easily be fooled. And scammers are betting on it every day.

These types of scams target businesses of all sizes. They also target nonprofit organizations, churches and charities. The fake invoices that clearly state that they are, in fact, a solicitation for your business or “not an invoice” aren’t necessarily illegal, but they can be costly for anyone who is duped into paying. Some scammers don’t even bother adding the appropriate language. They just hope they don’t get caught for their illegal activities.

The aim of these look-alike invoices is to trip up businesses that have multiple and different people doing the purchasing and paying the accounts. The expectation is that these people are not in close communication about purchasing activities.

Businesses and organizations come in all shapes and sizes. My experience managing a small office taught me to think critically about any business asking for money. I didn’t just examine the fake invoices but the real ones, too, making sure that we weren’t being overcharged. Every dollar counted.

When times were tight, we had to ask employees to work fewer hours. That’s hard to do.

When you think about your business or organization, imagine what cutbacks would be needed if fake invoices were able to claim hundreds or thousands of dollars from your coffers.

Luckily, you can shake off that image and protect your business from fake invoices by taking a few steps to tighten your controls.

BBB offers the following recommendations:

-- Make sure your accounts payable department is vigilant in spotting solicitations that look like an invoice. Some look-alikes will state “This is not a bill,” “This is a solicitation” or “Advertisement.”

-- Keep a list of all contracted vendors and businesses, including the name and phone number of each contact. If an invoice seems to come from a company with a similar name, call your contact and verify that it is legitimate.

-- Carefully examine any bill or invoice from an unknown business. Contact the business to ask for documentation, dates of service, proof of delivery of goods and a reference number.

-- Establish effective controls for paying invoices. Collect receipts or bills of sale from purchasers, and verify authorization of all invoices.

-- When in doubt, contact the BBB to check out a business before signing an agreement or contract and before providing any payment information. Some common types of business services that fake invoices claim to provide include telephone/communications technologies, Internet/computing technologies, yellow page/directory listings, equipment warranties/repair, magazine subscriptions, and office supplies. Many are vague but similar to services that businesses use regularly. That’s why they are so tricky.

Communication is essential to assuring that you don’t fall victim to dubious businesses and scammers who send fake invoices. Ask your accounts payable team to investigate each invoice and be diligent in their controls. When in doubt, they should ask questions.

Don’t be afraid to open the books often and ask your own questions on what is being paid out.

Routine check-ups can keep your business running smoothly, even in turbulent times.

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