Yo ho, yo ho, it's toner piracy

October 18, 2020 | Advanced Office

As if 2020 hasn’t already given us plenty to talk about – remember when we actually had to add murder hornets to our list of concerns earlier this year?  Well, now you can add Toner Pirates to your things to watch out for these days.  Yes, that’s correct, I said pirates.  As in marauder, buccaneer and freebooter.  And these are pirates of toner, no less. 

Now before you start envisioning eye patches, peg legs and parrots on shoulders, it’s worth noting that these scoundrels are fully adapted to our 21st century world.  They’ve traded in their sailing ships for nondescript office space, maps for call lists, and rather than swords, they now use the telephone as their weapon of choice.  And while they may not threaten to make you walk the plank, they use their fair share of bully tactics to get after your treasure, convincing a surprising number of organizations to pay their fraudulent and exorbitant ransoms.  I mean “invoices”.

Unfortunately, toner pirates are nothing new in the world of office equipment, and even if you’ve never heard this term, it’s very possible you have had your own encounter with these devious entities.  The scam is quite simple, and they’ve worked the script to mastery, so one couldn’t be faulted for falling victim to it.

It most commonly begins with a generic call to a receptionist or whoever is answering mainline phone calls. The pirate will make a statement such as “I’m with the company that supplies your ink and toner for the printers.”  It should be noted that they’ll rarely state the name of their organization, holding themselves out to be your contracted supply provider and waiting for the employee to fill that blank in for them.  “Oh, you mean ABC Company?”  “That’s right.”  Cue an evil, maniacal and scheming laugh.  From there they’ll inform them that the contract has a price increase coming up and they want to make sure their customers get an order in before that takes place.  They’re thoughtful like this.  Most often a surprised, and now possibly panicky employee will mutter an “ok” or some sort of an implied approval.  “Can you remind me what model machines you have?” the Pirate will ask, and with that the experience will be over.  The employee will go back to what they were working on and the pirate has what they need to make their move.

A few days later, some supplies for the copiers and printers will arrive with little fare and find their way to the storage closet or even into the machines themselves.  A week or more may pass after that, when suddenly an invoice will arrive in the mail.  The invoice won’t be from any company you recognize, and the amount will be unbelievable high; sometimes 400% higher than the supplies would normally cost you.  In larger organizations an AP department may pay the invoice without looking too deeply into it.  Others may discard the invoice for the obvious scam it is, or they may call the phone number listed on the invoice for further investigation.  At this point the threats will begin.  The pirates will demand immediate payment, threaten litigation or they may even be sympathetic and offer a price break for the misunderstanding.  How kind.  Understand, this is all bluster, because like a real pirate they have no legs to stand on.

The FTC has taken these activities very seriously and stepped in on behalf of Small Business when it comes to deceptive telemarketing practices such as this.  For more information you can visit their site outlining this and other scams like it, but the most important take away is this: you do not have to pay invoices like this should they target your organization.  Laws in place allow you to treat these unrequested supplies as a gift and whether you used them, threw them away or shipped them back, you are not required to pay for them. 

It’s always best to respond to the invoice with notice of their fraudulent activity and acknowledgment of your rights under the law to ignore their request for payment.  But you should also take it a step further and be sure to report this incident with the FTC so they can take action as well and help put a stop to these rapscallions, scoundrels and salty-dogs of the office high seas.

In the meantime, train your staff to be wary of incoming calls that don’t offer specifics, like your contracted toner providers company name, or ask you to tell them what kind of machines you have.  Any reputable office equipment provider will have detailed operating program that maintains all the specific information for contracts they’re involved with.  Also, toner is incredibly expensive, so if you’re on a program that provides toner at no charge, it’s unlikely they’ll be reaching out to load you up with more than you need.  Also, make sure your accounts payable team is on the lookout for invoices from unfamiliar vendors.  The piracy group’s biggest hope is that these invoices just slip through the cracks without anyone realizing it.  Someone actually calling to question the charge is their biggest concern in this whole process.

Photo by Ravi Patel on Unsplash