It's safe to say that regardless of size, most businesses have a lot to manage from day to day. Whether you're a one-man operation or working with multiple employees, you probably have a lot of work to be done and just barely enough hands to cover it all. This fact--plus a constant inflow and outflow of cash from many different customers and vendors--makes small businesses a target for fraudulent schemes.
To succeed in their dealings, small business con artists rely on two things from your business: lack of knowledge and lack of attention to detail. Protect your business by knowing and sharing the common red flags of these six scams that all small business owners need to watch out for.
Bogus Small Business Awards
What small business owner wouldn't love to win an award? Not only is it a confidence boost, but receiving accolades for your small business can be great for marketing as well. Unfortunately, con artists know this about business owners and are using the perks of business awards to their advantage.
If your business is contacted about winning an award, be wary of requests to pay any upfront costs of receiving the award. Certain illegitimate award givers will charge you high costs for the honor of being selected, and may even charge your credit card for annual or even monthly "membership fees" without your approval. If you're uncertain whether an award is legitimate, research the company beforehand to make sure it hasn't been associated with any dubious behavior.
E-Mail Phishing Scams
Phishing scams usually come through unsolicited emails that appear legitimate at first glance, but that are actually designed to spread a virus to the victim's computer when a link is clicked or an attachment downloaded. These viruses can collect personal information including social security numbers, bank and credit card information, and more. Because of the tremendous amount of personal information stored on most computers, phishing scams are a particularly significant threat to small businesses.
To avoid email phishing, warn all employees against opening emails from unknown senders, and particularly against clicking on links or attachments in those emails. Make sure that all computers and internet browsers have up-to-date anti-phishing software, and where possible, limit the number of employees or computers that have access to sensitive paperwork or personal data.
This scam occurs when an unknown customer places a large order with a business and pays by check. Beware of any customer in this circumstance who "accidentally" sends a check for more than the price of the goods, then asks you to wire a refund of the difference. In the end, victims typically find that what appeared to be a realistic check ultimately bounces, leaving a significant loss to the business.
As a rule, avoid wiring funds under any circumstances to anyone you haven't met personally--as this is a common red flag of a scam. Always be sure to collect specific contact information from new customers, and never issue refunds or ship larger orders to new customers until you're certain that the customer's check has cleared.
Phony Directory Services
Upon receiving a phone call from an individual claiming to represent the Yellow Pages or some similar listing, the average front desk receptionist would most likely confirm or update basic directory information as requested on the call. Unfortunately, though, this seemingly innocent phone call may be the beginning of a directory services scam, in which the phone call is followed up with an invoice for an unrequested directory listing or online ads that were never purchased.
Even if your company catches the fake invoice and refuses to pay, the scammer may threaten legal action, even going so far as to offer a doctored call recording as "evidence." With enough hounding, these criminals know that most business owners will go ahead and cut the check just to avoid further hassle.
Warn your employees against such scams--particularly receptionists and bookkeepers or accounts payable personnel. And if you do fall victim to such a scam, don't be intimidated by official-sounding threats. Asking for a business address and warning of a cease and desist letter from your attorney can encourage them to back off.
Office Supply Scheme
Did you know that according to the Senate Committee on Small Business & Entrepreneurship, office supply schemes cost consumers, small business owners, and non-profits up to $250 million per year in fraudulent charges? These ploys take many forms, including phone orders solicited from office supply telemarketers, invoices for supplies that were never ordered or delivered, or even through boxes dropped off by fake delivery men that require cash on delivery.
In any of these cases, front desk staff may easily be none the wiser and go along with these schemes. To avoid any of these office supply schemes, consistently order your supplies from the same trusted company, limit employees with access to company credit card information, and keep a tight rein on the petty cash available.
Shady Lenders and Loan Brokers
While many entrepreneurs benefit from funding their business ventures through business loans from online lenders, there are also an unfortunate number of swindlers online who pose as lenders or loan brokers to scam unsuspecting borrowers.
Before working with any lender or loan broker, do some research into the company--including asking for a real mailing address for the company. Reputable lenders will always have a physical address and a verifiable online presence. If the individual you're communicating with can't supply an address (or only lists a P.O. box) that you can confirm online to be registered to their business, that's a sign that they may be operating a business loan scam from outside the U.S.
In addition, no lender, broker, or loan officer should ever ask you for money up front. If you're asked for a down payment, a registration fee, a credit check fee, or any other upfront payment, that's an immediate red flag that you're facing a loan scam. Any time you even suspect a lender or loan broker to be illegitimate, avoid sharing any personal information or offering any form of payment. Instead, immediately end your communication and move on to a verified, reputable business lender.
Diligence Is Your Best Defense
Sadly, small business owners are a target for all kinds of financial schemes, and criminals are constantly devising new ways to take a piece of your hard-earned revenue. Take the time to train employees against common scams, limit the number of individuals with access to business credit cards or personal information, and be especially diligent in your dealings with any vendors you haven't previously worked with. As long as you know what to watch out for and are careful, you can protect your business against acts of fraud.