Some mailed solicitations bear confusing resemblance to bills

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— Some businesses in Steamboat have received from a California yellow pages firm a solicitation invoice that looks deceptively like a bill.

It's the kind of solicitation that, although legal, raises the ire of Better Business Bureau representatives.

The California company that has been soliciting local advertising dollars Yellow Pages, Inc. describes itself in the pseudo-bill as an online provider of yellow page business listings.

"Basically if you look at the invoice, they've covered themselves, but still to us it looks misleading because people think it's actually an invoice for something they already placed," said Barbara Read, the communications director at the Mountain States Better Business Bureau.

Yellow Pages Inc. sales associate James Kelley said in a telephone interview that his company has been in business for about eight years. However, its Web site, www.yellowpagesinc.com, states the company started in 1996.

Solicitations for yellow pages listings can be confusing for consumers, Read said, because neither the logo of fingers walking on the world nor the terms "yellow pages" are trademarked. Consumers may believe they're advertising with one yellow pages company when they're really advertising with someone completely different. There are about 350 yellow page companies that use the walking fingers logo.

"They all look so much the same, but one is in California and another is in New York " Read said.

In fact, the major publishers in the yellow pages industry are moving away from the walking fingers logo because they have had too many problems with it, said Danielle Jimenez, spokeswoman for U S West Dex. Every yellow pages bill from U S West Dex is included with an advertiser's phone bill, Jimenez said, and all the bills are marked with the company's new yellow pages new logo a man holding a magnifying glass.

"We can't encourage enough that advertisers need to meticulously look over their bill and truly read every detail," Jimenez said.

It is illegal to mail a bill, invoice or an account-due statement if it's actually a solicitation, according to BBB documents. However, many companies, like Yellow Pages Inc., send solicitation forms that look similar to a bill, but they add one of two disclaimers. They either state explicitly that the form is not a bill or they admit in print that the form is a solicitation.

Yellow Pages Inc. uses both options. In the upper right-hand corner of the statement (at left), "THIS IS NOT A BILL" is printed. And, in between the two main boxes, an explanation that the non-bill is a solicitation is printed.

"I don't know how you could think that this was a bill," Yellow Pages Inc.'s Kelley said.

But, apparently, plenty of people do get confused with solicitations like Yellow Pages Inc.'s.

"A lot of times people overlook the 'this is not a bill' statement," Jimenez said.

The BBB rates Yellow Pages, Inc. satisfactorily because the company hasn't had an unusual number of complaints or any complaints that haven't been resolved. Read and Jimenez, though, advise advertisers to use caution when dealing with companies that solicit business with a bill format.

"I have a real problem with companies that do business in this manner," Read said. "There's businesses like this all over the country."

Some elements that should raise red flags for advertisers include a reference number listed on the form instead of an account number; the amount asked for is between $100 and $200; and the form states "amount enclosed" rather than "amount due."

"Once a bill is sent, it's difficult to get the money back," Jimenez said.

The Yellow Pages Publishers Association estimates that invoice fraud and schemes collect $500 million each year.

To contact Larissa Keever call 871-4229 or e-mail lkeever@amigo.net

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