Local businesses and charities have buckled down in a race to hit revenue goals before the ball drops, so to speak, at the end of this month and the year. But, Better Business Bureau (BBB) reminds small businesses that they, too, will receive year-end solicitations — and that the holidays are no time to drop your guard.

Just before Thanksgiving, the owner of a local home improvement company contacted BBB about an email he received from SmallBusinessExcellence.org. He hadn’t submitted a nomination or applied for the award; it simply came out of the blue. The message he shared stated, “This notification email is announcing that the Baltimore Small Business Excellence selection group has chosen [business] for the 2016 Baltimore Small Business Excellence Award in the Contractors classification.”

The email included links to a press release and to a variety of awards for purchase and use in promotion of the distinction. Prices for the awards ranged from $139.99 to $189.99. Exact specifications were not provided, only vague descriptions and images. While our investigation is ongoing, BBB learned the website’s url was just created in July 2016.

Looking back over the year, here are some of the most frequently investigated business-to-business inquiries received by BBB, and what to do if something similar crosses your desk.

  • Vanity awards. Ask questions or ignore the notice altogether. If you decide to take a closer look, learn everything you can about who is giving the award. If it’s from a mystery company, chances are they simply want your money. Know the nomination process. Find out who nominated your business for the award. If you didn’t apply for it or the group cannot tell you how you were nominated, chances are it’s a vanity award.
  • Fake invoices. BBB’s Scam Tracker receives hundreds of reports about fake invoices each year. Fake invoices can be for just about anything, including some more frequently reported categories listed below. Take time to establish checks, balances and train staff. Read the fine print for notice of “solicitation,” and remember that you have no legal obligation to pay for goods that weren’t ordered, such as office supplies or light bulbs.
  • School posters, Yellow Pages and other publications. If you receive an invoice for an advertisement that you do not recognize or did not authorize, contest it and don’t pay. Be careful to watch for “look alike” names that sound familiar. Many of these reports have resulted in BBB’s review of the electronic or print correspondence. Deceptive sales tactics attempt to mirror bills, but usually disclose their true objective in very small print. If no disclosure is found, contact the sender and request proof of the ad placement, and of the authenticity of the order by a recorded phone conversation or signed documentation.

When you suspect you’ve received a suspicious call, email or letter, check BBB Scam Tracker at bbb.org/scamtracker to see if others have reported similar experiences. You can also post your report to help us identify trends and inform other businesses. If you would like assistance or have questions, contact Jody Thomas at 410-347-8593.