Recent emails notifying Missouri and Illinois businesses that they have won prestigious awards from a national association appear to be part of a widespread scheme designed to get companies to pay for “vanity” awards and plaques.
The group behind the “awards” program is the U. S. Commerce Association of Washington, D. C. The association has been sending out news releases in recent months to St. Louis area businesses, telling them they have been selected as “outstanding local businesses” and offering them an opportunity to buy one or more awards to mark the honor.
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) urges that area businesses exercise caution when dealing with this group or a related organization called the U. S. Local Business Association.
“From everything we can find, this is just one more ploy to profit off the universal desire for recognition and approval,” said Michelle Corey, president and CEO of the St. Louis BBB. “We are advising people to steer clear, unless they want to pay $180 for what looks to be a meaningless office decoration.”
Pat Joshu, executive director of St. Louis’ Immigrant & Refugee Program, said she was immediately suspicious when her organization received a press release from the U. S. Commerce Association notifying it of an award. Not only had Joshu never heard of the association, she discovered that if she ever wanted to display the “hand-polished crystal” award in her office, she would have to pay the $179.99 cost herself.
On its Web site, the U. S. Commerce Association says the award program was “created to honor and generate public recognition of the achievements and positive contributions of businesses and organizations in and around St. Louis.”
Other than the material on its Web site, there seems to be little publicly available about the U. S. Commerce Association. The site says its offices are in Washington, D. C., and a representative of the BBB that covers the area said that office has begun receiving inquiries about the association in the past several days. A recently updated BBB report says that the association’s Web site is a match to the Web site of an association with a similar name – U. S. Local Business Association. Both groups identify Ashley Carter as chair of the associations’ selection committees. And both groups report virtually identical award programs, the BBB says. The Washington, D. C. – area BBB office gives U. S. Local Business Association an “F” grade and warns that persons contacted about awards must be sure the recognition is not, “in fact, an attempt to obtain access to a company’s information or to elicit funds by an entity that may not be what it represents itself as being.”
An internet search of corporate records uncovered little additional information on the association. An email to the office (there is no phone number listed on its Web site) went unanswered.
Joshu first learned of her group’s “award” in a news release sent to an email apparently taken from the charity’s Web site. The release, issued June 8, said the Immigrant & Refugee Women’s Program had been selected for the award in the “Individual & Family Services” category. The release said that “various sources of information were gathered and analyzed to choose the winners in each category.” A photo in the email showed the crystal award with the organization’s name appearing to be engraved on the crystal. Joshu said she was offered three award options: an aluminum and wood plaque for $79.99, the five-pound engraved crystal award for $179.99, or both pieces for $199.99.
Clyde Jeans, president and CEO of Critique Personnel Service, Inc. of St. Louis, said he too was notified recently that his company had won an award from the association. He said he never responded to a solicitation to purchase an award. He said his group previously had been “burned” on a similar vanity award. “We learned our lesson,” he said.
Others, though, have not been so fortunate. The president of a California medical device company told the BBB that he thought he had properly researched the association by checking out its Web site and speaking with some of its principals before agreeing to purchase a plaque. Satisfied, he went ahead with the purchase and his company issued its own news release on the award.
In a link provided in its email to Joshu, the U. S. Commerce Association provides a list of several hundred award winners from 2008. Among the winners were a discount driving school in Maryland, a tattoo removal clinic in California, a bagpipe player in Arizona and a “laser tag family fun center” in Louisiana. Other award winners were in categories such as “astrologers,” “disc jockeys,” “tanning salons,” and “artificial waterfalls.”
St. Louis area award winners included several physical therapists, a scrap metal company and a haunted house theme park.
The BBB offers several tips to avoid losing money in a “vanity award” program:
· Learn everything you can about who is giving the award. If it is coming from a mystery company, chances are it simply wants your money.
· If you didn’t apply for an award or the group cannot tell you how you were nominated, chances are the award is not legitimate.
· Most legitimate awards do not come with costs for the recipient. If there is a cost, scrutinize it even more closely.
· Ask specific questions about how your company or organization was chosen for an award and find out how many similar awards are given each year.
· Check BBB reliability reports at www.bbb.org or by calling 309-688-5124.