Don’t be a magha: Scams and rip-offs that target business owners (part 1)

The word in Yoruba is “magha,” loosely translated into English as “fool.”  And, as we know, “a fool and his money are soon parted.”  There is little sympathy for maghas, who are seen as rich, greedy, and stupid by the young Nigerian scammers who work inside closed cyber cafés, harvesting email addresses and sending out those messages with which we are all so familiar:  one of your friends has been robbed while in London and needs some specific amount of money, down to the penny, to pay the hotel and taxi fare and get back to the United States.  Or perhaps you have won the Spanish lottery and all the writer needs is your bank information and a few personal details to transfer the winnings to you, minus his small fee.  Maybe the writer has read about your business on the internet, wants to purchase your services, appears to transfer a $10,000 deposit instead of the $1,000 requested, and requests that you process a prompt $9,000 refund as this is his life savings.  We all know how that ends up… we do, don’t we?

Of course, these scams don’t all originate from Nigeria by any means.  Nor are they new.  In fact, similar schemes have been around for literally hundreds of years—it is only the method of delivery that has really changed.  In the early 19th century, Eugène Vidocq used the term “Letters from Jerusalem” to describe letters an individual would receive from an unfortunate prisoner, the sole purported possessor of the secret of a certain buried treasure, who would share that treasure with you (yes, you!) if you would only assist him in retrieving it by sending him a few francs to bribe his way out of his current predicament.

My focus here, however, is on contemporary and highly credible-looking solicitations, most of them apparently legal, that are sent out by companies right here in the US but that nonetheless rely on the gullibility of “maghas” for their success.

Every couple of weeks, for example, a client calls me and says he or she has received an envelope marked, “An Important Notification from the “United States Trademark Registration Office,” or something like that.   It is usually an official looking envelope.  It may be stamped “time sensitive” or sport a postage meter frank bearing a bald eagle and a return address from the “United States Trademark Registration Office” (careful, it sounds a lot like the United States Patent and Trademark Office… except that it’s not).

Inside is something that looks very much like a federal government form.  It may be poorly designed and cheaply copied, and it may even say in capital letters that it is a solicitation.  Did you notice that?  I said, IT MAY EVEN SAY IT IS A SOLICITATION.  The disclaimer, of course, is hidden in plain sight among such statements as “WARNING: YOUR TRADEMARK WILL BE CANCELLED IF YOU DO NOT FILE THE DOCUMENTS ABOVE DURING THE SPECIFIED TIME PERIODS,” “FEE: $375,” and “NOW DUE.”  To lure you in, the notice may also cite your trademark serial number or registration number, filing date, address, and other fiendishly accurate information, all harvested from public records, of course, though you may not even have known such records existed.

What “service” is the company selling for $375?  Perhaps that your trademark will be registered on some (worthless) international list; that you will receive email reminders when renewals are due (which your attorney will do for free anyway); that your trademark will be recorded with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (which sounds great but is perfectly useless for most marks); or that the company will “monitor” your mark using its “proprietary search engine” to detect potentially infringing uses (you can set up a free Google alert in about two minutes to do the same thing).

So what should you do when you receive a notice like this?  NOTHING.  If you are using an attorney for your trademark work (which you certainly should be) the USPTO will communicate directly with your attorney and not with you anyway, so you can safely ignore any solicitation (or just forward it to your attorney to worry about).

Thankfully, the USPTO has started publishing some of these scams on its own website to educate the public.

What?  You don’t keep up with the USPTO website over coffee each morning?  Fortunately, the trademark attorneys at Briskin Cross and Sanford do.  We stay ahead of the curve–and hopefully ahead of the scammers–to keep your intellectual property safe and to provide value and peace of mind in all trademark and general business matters.

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