Recent emails notifying 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 businesses nationwide, 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.
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 (targeted area named here).”
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.
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.”
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 509-455-4200 or 800-356-1007.