Spam time! Been a while.
I’ve been getting a pretty healthy influx of spam, of course, though I’m glad to report that the amount has fallen off quite a bit recently, what with recent developments — it won’t last, but I’ll take what I can get.
Still, I did get hit by a little beaut of a scam. It got my attention mostly by giving off that wonderful stench of bullshit, with a subject line that read “Registration of EU Companies 2008/2009” — something that comes off as just a tiny bit more real than your average Viagra or Russian dating service sales pitch. As it turned out, also a little more malicious; when I dug into the thing a little, it got pretty interesting.
EU Company Registration
In order to have your company inserted into the registry of EU companies for 2008/2009, please print, complete and return the enclosed form (PDF file) to the following address:
EU Company Directory
P.O. Box 2021
3500 GA UTRECHT
Updating is free of charge!
To unsubscribe, please send an email to email@example.com
Obviously, I’ve never subscribed to anything that would give these guys a reason to approach me via e-mail with this bullshit, and I’d bet that neither has anyone else. Ever. Hell, it’s not as if I have a company.
This one came from “EU Company Registration”, and they like to make it look like they’re a highly respected and official authority within the EU. I mean, they don’t actually say that, and a small notice on their website states that they are not related to any organization or institution of the European Union or Commission. But they don’t draw much attention to it. Unlike most spammers, they have a seemingly permanent web presence at eucompanydirectory.com.
So what do they do? Well, they run a directory of businesses. According to their website, “Yearly a printed directory is published and widely spread over Europe and the rest of the world”. Whether such a printed directory actually exists or not, I can’t say; I’m absolutely sure that even if one has been printed in the past, it’s most certainly not widely spread over Europe and the rest of the world. I’ve never heard of this thing, and the only Google hits I can come up with after a quick search are various versions of this very spam message. Moreover, according to their WHOIS information, the domain has been registered in Hungary, not the Netherlands — which isn’t proof of anything in itself, but if this was a notable company in the Netherlands, you’d think they’d actually, you know, do their business in the Netherlands.
So I’d bet that this is just another version of one of those “name a star” things, where you’re told that for a small registration fee — I think the classic price was about 30 or 40 bucks; a decent chunk of cash, but still fairly cheap — you can get a star named after yourself in the International Star Registry or some comparable thing. That sounds pretty nifty, but the catch is, of course, that although the Registry exists, it’s no more meaningful than the Most Awesome Cool Dudes in the World Registry than I personally run (in which you can be included for the insignificant sum of 50 bucks): it’s just a list some dude maintains in his basement, and it has absolutely no impact on, well, anything.
Okay, but where’s the catch? After all, you can get your information into this thing for free, it says so right in the e-mail. “Updating is free of charge!”
Well. Not quite. See, the enclosed form — which looks reasonably official, almost as if it was some kind of an official EU form, what with the big EU logo in the background and all — looks pretty innocent. It makes a case for international cooperation: “We wish to be able to inform other EU companies about your activities.” Again, they mention, in bold type no less, that updating your information is free of charge. The form asks for basic and innocent information about your company, nothing that would make identity theft or anything of the sort a very realistic option. This is the kind of information anyone can find out about, well, just about any company of note just by heading to their website. So it’s not as if they’re trying to fool you into telling anything about yourself that you wouldn’t want them to know.
But once you look at the small print — and how’s that for a classic dickhead move? — things start to look pretty different, because as it turns out, you’re going to be paying through the nose (emphasis mine):
THE VALIDATION TIME OF THE CONTRACT IS THREE YEARS AND STARTS ON THE EIGHTH DAY AFTER SIGNING THE CONTRACT. THE INSERTION IS GRANTED AFTER SIGNING AND RECEIVING THIS DOCUMENT BY THE SERVICE PROVIDER. I HEREBY ORDER A SUBSCRIPTION WITH THE SERVICE PROVIDER EU BUSINESS SERVICES LTD. “EU COMPANY DIRECTORY”. I WILL HAVE AN INSERTION INTO ITS DATA BASE FOR THREE YEARS. THE PRICE PER YEAR IS EURO 995. THE SUBSCRIPTION WILL BE AUTOMATICALLY EXTENDED EVERY YEAR FOR ANOTHER YEAR, UNLESS SPECIFIC WRITTEN NOTICE IS RECEIVED BY THE SERVICE PROVIDER OR THE SUBSCRIBER TWO MONTHS BEFORE THE EXPIRATION OF THE SUBSCRIPTION.
See, you’re not updating anything. You’re actually subscribing to a service. And if you don’t bother to read what you’re signing and make the mistake of sending that off, you’ve just committed to paying these guys three grand. Three thousand euros.
For that, they will basically list the contact information you have just given them on their little website and put it on a CD-ROM and whatnot. If you’re the sort of a person who could be perhaps be characterized as an eternal optimist, you may even believe that it’ll get you more business. Personally, I prefer the term “sucker”, and I’d once again like to direct your attention to the Most Awesome Cool Dudes in the World Registry, which may get you the kind of exclusive attention you’ve always wanted. Chump.
Money for Nothing
I have no way of knowing how many people fall for this, but considering that this could very well just be one guy running his little bullshit business, which is based entirely on deception, he doesn’t need all that many people to fall for it to make a pretty nice living for himself. I mean, what are the expenses? A PO box in the Netherlands? A really crappy-looking website? Maybe, if he’s bothering, some CD-ROMs and a small print run of the directory? These days, that’s hardly expensive, and if he really lives in Hungary, three grand goes a reasonably long way over there. Especially as this may well be tax-free income.
Of course, looking at the website, you might think there are plenty of suckers. Out of curiosity, I picked the “Finance, Insurance and Real Estate” category and listed all of the companies there. I got 10 hits on the first page, and there were a total of 96 pages. That’s about a thousand companies. That would mean that based on that category alone and presuming that they haven’t given these companies any discounts, these guys would rake in about three million euros. And for a second there, I went, “whoa, hold the phone, how fucking rich are these dudes?” I mean, their website looks like it cost about five euros and a rancid hot dog to make. This is not an expensive business to run by any standard. What’s up with that?
But then I realized that in order to look remotely attractive, they really need to make it look like this is a popular service, so the categories need to look as if they’re pretty packed. And that’s no problem, because as I said, all of the information they ask for is available on any company website. The beauty of it is, if they just go trawling for information they can slap on their directory, no one is likely to complain — after all, if you get your company listed somewhere for free, it’s potential business, right? Why would you be bummed about that? Ain’t nothing illegal about that, either; it’s public information.
To test this out, I decided to make a few phone calls to some of the Finnish companies listed in the directory, as I found over 800 of them listed on the site. Most of them were fairly small, but some pretty prominent ones were also included — banks, insurance companies, joints like that. I stayed away from those; big company policies being what they are, they weren’t likely to want to tell me, and anyway, my chances of finding someone who knew the answer to the question were ridiculously low. Small companies, on the other hand, probably wouldn’t mind telling me if I explained what I was trying to find out and asked nicely: in a small operation, it probably wouldn’t be that hard to find out if they were paying one grand a year for a listing on a directory. Or, more to the point: they most likely wouldn’t have any problem with telling me if they weren’t.
First, I called up a lawyer’s office in Jyväskylä. The guy picking up the phone interrupted me before I was even done explaining what I was doing: he knew what I was talking about. “Yeah, we get crap like that all the time, but we always just throw it in the trash. We never take part in any of this stuff.”
As far as I’m concerned, even one company that hasn’t actually subscribed to the service but still shows up in the directory kind of proves the point, but just to make sure, I called up another. This one was an architectural firm in Lappeenranta. I pretty much hit paydirt: their CEO told me that they’d had a trainee who filled out the form, and apparently didn’t read the fine print properly. In a couple of weeks, the bill came in, much to everyone’s surprise. At first, they had a lot of trouble figuring out what to do — after all, there’s no Finnish representation for the Directory, and indeed, there isn’t any person with an actual name attached to this whole enterprise, no phone number to call: just a generic e-mail address and the PO box in the Netherlands. It was pretty difficult for them to resolve the matter, because obviously they didn’t want to just leave it unpaid, they wanted to talk to someone about canceling the whole thing. But they couldn’t contact anyone.
Now, these guys were smart: instead of just sucking it up and paying the bill, they called up their lawyers, who simply said that they shouldn’t pay. Accordingly, they ignored the few reminders that cropped up in the mail, and that was that. Not surprisingly, the mighty EU Company Directory was in no rush to sue anyone for breach of contract. But the architectural firm is still listed in the directory, even though they refused to pay — so whatever benefit the Directory purportedly bestows on those listed within it, the firm is presumably getting it.
I was glad to get direct confirmation for my thoughts on how this thing worked: the EU Company Directory banks on people not bothering to read the fine print. Once the mark realizes what’s going on, it’s too late: they’ve signed the paper, and here’s the bill. Of course, no smart person actually pays, but I’d bet plenty of people are afraid of getting in trouble for not paying, so they cough up the money.
So, there you have it. It’s hardly the most original scam ever perpetrated, but they’re probably pulling in enough people to make it worth their while. It’s not as if it’s an expensive business to run for them. It only takes a few suckers for someone to get a pretty good return on their investment.
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