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Support Publishing Scams

Support Publishing is a recognised term used for businesses that manage the publication of a range of items such as desk diaries, wall planners, pamphlets, magazines and books. The items will be used to promote a particular good cause. For example a diary might be prepared on behalf of a police sports foundation or a booklet might be published in support of child safety on crossings outside schools.

The intention is for the publication to be circulated to schools and community centres in such a way as to raise public awareness of the messages contained within, such as child safety, safety at work or the good work a charity might be doing.

Of course the publishing company needs to be paid for supplying the publication and there are two ways of doing this. The first is for the charity or good cause to approach the publisher and commission the required item. They may order and pay for several thousand desk diaries to circulate around potential donnors. Details of the charity and the work it is doing will be contained within the diary. This is no different from the marketing products that may be commissioned by commercial companies to raise awareness of their brands.

The second method for funding the publication is for the publisher to include commercial advertisements. An advertser may be happy to fund an entry in a good cause booklet knowing that the public will associate their name withe the good cause and in doing so raise the commercial awareness of their brand. In theory it would be a good method of marketing.

There is nothing futrther to mention concerning the first method of funding. However, the second method is wide open to abuse by con merchants who see this as an easy way to solicit money from the millions of gernerally small businesses around the country who find it very difficult to say “no” when asked to support a good cause locally while at the same time gaining valuable marketing exposure.

To illustrate the support publishing practice that has grown up in the UK over recent years consider the case of McPherson Publishing Limited and Cavendish Publishing Limited. The names have been changed but represent very real companies that were trading fraudulently.  These support publishing companies have been well reported in the press following what was apparently the greatest number of complaints to Trading Standards offices around the UK ever received for one business. They were the same business, one simply setting up and taking over when the regulatory heat became too much for the other. Both companies have now been closed down by the authorities. In fact there were other forerunner companies and there are currently subsequent companies still operating! All were managed by the same people and utilised the same staff out of the same offices.

The business produced quarterly magazines aimed at off duty police, ambulance and fire service personnel. The publication included a few articles of general interest, recipes and puzzles together with around 200 advertisements for local businesses. Each magazine was produced on a regional basis, with the same content but with paid advertisements from businesses in each region.

200 advertsiements through 50 regions, four times a year at an average cost of £250 per entry gives a potential annual revenue of £10,000,000! When you consider that each advertiser received a copy of the magazine and a few hundred were distributed between a dozen or so police stations and ambulance centres – only about 50,000 magazines were printed each year.

Each magazine cost around £2 to print and post out. This leaves most of the £10 million to pay the dozen or so telesales staff around 40% commission and the rest, the lions share, going to the directors running the company.

The business worked because the sales team were self employed on commission, and used various devious means to hook the clients, whose names were simply extracted from phone directories and local papers. Most people don’t like to say no when asked to support good causes, partcicularly if names of charitable causes are used as a hook. The first telephone call would spin the tale of widely distributed publications… “100,000s in your area” and thereby solicit a real commercial interest. The second call, often only minutes after the first would be recorded and would exclude any detail of the false promises. It would simply confirm some of the victim’s details. The customer was often left somewhat bemused, thinking that they would make a final decision when they received their advertsiement copy for approval. However, what they would receive was an invoice with the only option for cancelling being the payment of a charge!

A large proportion of small businesses will pay such an invoice not wishing to enter into any dispute. Those that knew their consumer rights a little better were more likley to bin the first payment demand or return it with a letter saying they did not wish to go ahead with the advertisement. But the support publisher has a plan for increasing the proportion of targets who pay from the initial 40% or so to around 60% or even 70% by a sequence of demanding letters and phone calls robust enought to shake the resolve of even the most resolute victim. In the illustration, the business even passed the unpaid bills over to another debt collecting business that it had set up itself to give the illusion of escalating seriousness in the matter. They even resorted to “door-stop” collection techniques and a video of the threatening behaviour of one particularly nasty instance was caught on the victim’s mobile phone and aired on BBC’s Watchdog in 2006!

That this is a fraud there is no doubt. However, it is a problem that is very hard to deal with. The methods used by the support publishers make it harder and harder to close them down, with sanctions being fairly lenient to date (director disqualification etc). It is likley that the Fraud Act 2006 could be a better route if it was possible to get the police economic crime units to take an interest. The trouble is they are very often unwittingly caught supporting these very cons themselves by agreeing to take nominal quantities of the publications which they simply see as being “freebies”.

The telesales opperators in the business pay no tax. When investigating this particular support publisher I had a whistleblower contact me to say that all the staff used aliases and most were drawing supplementary benefit as well as earning £30 £50,000 per year!

So we have tax fraud, benefit fraud, Misrepresentation Act offences, Telecomunications Act offences, Data Protection Act offences and Fraud Act offences (plus the Company Act 1985 offences that I was investigating).

I tried to arrange a meeting with senior tax representitives from HMRC to inform them of the scale of the tax evasion, not only in the few companies that I investigated but concerning the industry as a whole, but the feedback was that theyconsidered the problem one that they could not deal with. The message was that they would have to wait until legislation changed.

Eventually a High Court Order was obtained to close the companies down. When the Official Receiver went in to the business the next day he found that the bank accounts had been stripped. Within a few days the business was back up running under a different name from the same (rented) premises.

Support publishing is a recognised problem for the authorities who continue to close these companies down only to have them reopen later under different names. Some open as partnerships or sole traders, having cottoned on to the fact that Companies Investigations Branch will not investigate them then. The police are unlikley to have the time and therefore if the perpetrators can make sure the complaints to Trading Standards are kept to a minimum by not pursuing debts too rigorously they will continue for the forseeable future to keep trading below the radar!