Inventors' enthusiasm and passion for their inventions, coupled with their lack of knowledge about the process, make them attractive targets for scam artists.

Frequently, invention marketing companies and invention submission companies prey on your desire to succeed, says Iowa patent attorney Ryan N. Carter. "I'm not saying that they're all bad, but you should be very skeptical of a lot of them," he says. Inventors have a tendency to hear what they want to hear because the invention "is their baby," says Professor Tim Faley, managing director of the Samuel Zell & Robert H. Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of Michigan.

How Scams Work
You've heard the slick radio and TV ads promising help to inventors. They often make promises that no reputable patent attorney or inventors' agent would, says Carter. Among the usual scam tactics:

  • Asking for significant sums of cash up front to conduct market analysis through high-pressure sales calls. "The company will send you a shiny, glossy notebook that really doesn't say much,'' Carter says.
  • Telling you that yours is one of the few ideas they've received that will actually succeed in the marketplace. This is what these companies tell each of their victims.
  • Guaranteeing the company can get you a patent. It's impossible to guarantee delivery of a patent, say the experts.
  • alsifying customer satisfaction ratings. Carter saw a response from one company that cites 99 percent of its customers were satisfied. The statistic came with an asterisk. The small print noted that the company had not included any negative feedback in its survey.
  • Applying for a design patent rather than a utility patent. A design patent protects only the ornamental aspects of your invention, notes New York patent attorney Ian R. Blum. These patents are cheaper and easier to acquire, and they do nothing to protect the functionality of your invention.
  • Asking you to write down your idea and mail it to yourself. This is simply an exercise in futility and does nothing to protect your idea.

What You Can Do
Invention scams have become such big business that government agencies have run publicity campaigns to help educate the public about the pitfalls involved. Both the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the Federal Trade Commission offer information about avoiding these scams. "They have areas that list complaints against these companies,'' says Carter.

You can arm yourself. Take these precautions:

  • Ask questions about a company's statistics, such as what percentage of inventions reviewed receive positive feedback. An almost perfect positive feedback rate would be a red flag. The 1999 American Inventors Protection Act requires companies to respond when you ask for data such as this. You can also ask what percentage of a company's inventor clientele actually made a profit off licensing or what percentage of the clientele signed licensing agreement as a result of the company's efforts.
  • Check with the Better Business Bureau and local and state agencies, as well as the federal agencies, for complaints against a company. "We always say check with your local Better Business Bureau, but few people ever do,'' Blum says.
  • Do a simple Google search on the company. Often, disgruntled customers fight back these days through blogs and forums. You'll get a clearer picture of how a company operates.
  • Talk to local inventors' groups and ask for recommendations.
  • Ask under what names the company might have previously done business.

The key is to be wary when someone too easily tells you your idea is as terrific as you think it is, says Carter.