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Best Practice Makes Perfect

A collaboration with Domino developers about how to do it and how to get it right in Domino

I recently received a letter from the phone company ACN (link not provided because I don't want to raise their search ranking), welcoming me as a new customer. Only problem: I'd never heard of them. They had switched me from my previous phone service provider without my permission or knowledge, a practice known as "slamming." Many people in Minnesota are in the same situation (ACN tells me so themselves). Yes, it's very illegal. Yes, the FCC has strict rules about this. Yes, the Attorney General of the State of Minnesota will probably sue the pants off them.

I had to contact my previous provider and ask to have it switched back. That's no big deal, but apparently the slamming began with a faxed order form from one of their sales people (who had never had any contact with me) with my name hand-printed (not in cursive) on the line where I was supposed to sign. I'm not a legal expert, but that seems to me like a felony. It doesn't matter whether the forgery was done skillfully -- if someone writes something on the signature line, purporting to be the signature of someone other than themselves, and action takes place as a result, that's grounds for a long jail sentence. Yes, I definitely do intend to press charges.

If you search online for ACN, you'll find they're a "multi-level marketing organization". They have lots of "independent representatives" who have each paid in excess of $500 for the privilege of badgering their family and friends to sign up for phone service and to try to get them to become sub-representatives to themselves, like vampires with a head vampire. This gives ACN a large sales force of not overly intelligent people, who are strongly motivated to make back the money they wisely spent, which means signing up others in their circle of acquaintance. The desire to not have been the only one fooled, is probably not a factor.

One wonders what percentage of ACN's revenue comes from selling phone service, and what percent from the money people pay them for the privilege of working for them. My God, that sounds like something out of a fever dream. I want to run a company where people pay me to work for me! Except, of course, that I would be afraid of going to hell.

Do not call it a pyramid scheme. It's probably untrue that most people who sign up as reps end up losing money on the deal. And anyway it would be unfair to characterize it as a scam just because of that, even if it were true. Some reps buy Corvettes. Whoo! Corvettes! You just gotta get out there and hustle, as some responders to this thread point out.

I managed to get ACN to send me a copy of the faxed order (which is how I know about the printed "signature"). It came from an obviously fake fax number (555 exchange, like in the movies) and was page 18 of 35. One assumes if the forger wasn't bright enough to write something that at least looked like a signature on my form, they probably weren't bright enough to vary the handwriting or make something that looked like a real signature on any of the other forms. So I imagine the data entry person entering information from this fax, 35 consecutive pages containing obviously false signatures in the same handwriting, and do they say to themselves, "Hmm, don't these look fake?" Apparently not. But ACN's published policy is that (to prevent slamming) they'll reject any forms that look the least bit suspicious. Clearly it's not ACN's fault that this is happening, since their policy forbids it.

Of course, it's hard to get everyone in a big company to implement your corporate policies. Normally, you'd expect the data entry people to get a little slack. Unless, of course, there had been recent reports of slamming in a particular region. In such a case, since ACN is serious about preventing slamming, they probably alert all their folks to watch for suspicious looking orders from Minnesota, and remind them to look for them in general. Apparently, this has been going on in Minnesota for weeks (see, entry for 21 January 2009). But probably this is not enough time to send a memo to the data entry people. It takes time to compose such a memo, choosing your words carefully so that it will not be misunderstood.

Also, since this is a phone company, you would expect them to have the ability to use caller ID on their fax line. ACN could refuse blocked calls on that line, and log the caller IDs, which are really difficult to fake (unlike the originating number of a fax machine, which you can just program into the machine). That way, they could immediately track down which phone a phony order was faxed from, and find out who was doing it. Or failing that, at least to flag as suspicious all further orders faxed from the same line. But it looks like either nobody at ACN has thought of doing this, or the person who isn't bright enough to make a forged signature look like an actual signature, is bright enough to fax from a different phone each time. But I believe ACN is really taking a hard line against slamming. They clearly don't want anyone doing that. They just needed someone to suggest this sophisticated and non-obvious technique to them. Now that I have done so, I'm confident they'll implement it immediately.

NOTE: You may be wondering, "But wait! To get credit for the sale, doesn't the representative have to write their ID number on the form? What motivation would they have to write someone else's number there?" I wondered that too, but ACN tells me this is indeed what's happening. I would look first at the common head vampire of all the vampires whose ID numbers were on the fake orders, since they benefit from their minions' sales (and who else has access to those ID numbers?). This is fairly obvious, and nobody should expect to get away with it, but again, I don't think the MIT crowd sign up for this program.

ACN has been sued in one other state that I know of for slamming (I didn't search for other cases). In that case, they claimed that the representative who was forging orders was an independent contractor and that ACN was therefore not liable for their actions. I don't know how successful they were in making that case. However, after that lawsuit, they're doing everything in their power to prevent slamming. It says so right there in their policy.

Andre Guirard | 3 February 2009 07:00:00 AM ET | Home, Plymouth, MN, USA | Comments (7)


1) Caller ID
Jim Casale | 2/3/2009 8:11:42 AM

Andre, You said "and log the caller IDs, which are really difficult to fake (unlike the originating number of a fax machine, which you can just program into the machine)."

Unfortunately that isn't really the case. I am on a do not call list and many of the numbers that come up on caller id are bogus numbers. One of the reasons they do this is to get around anonymous call rejection. If they can't get through by blocking their number they just put in a fake number.

I think there is an option to lock your phone service and it can't get switched without a password,etc. You might want to check with your real phone company.

2) Yahoo slammed me
Frank Paolino | 2/3/2009 9:22:09 AM

I had a similar bad experience, not with a phone company, but with Yahoo "fixing" my Search Marketing WITHOUT my permission. My Yahoo Search Marketing was set up by Mike Ford, an SEO guru, and I was quite happy with it. Then Yahoo decided to "fix" it by slamming my into a whole realm that I had no interest in. I thought I was alone on this one, but I found many small businesses who had their campaigns "slammed" by Yahoo. They decided to "fix" our campaigns. Well, the fix was in, but not in any way helpful.

I contacted them and asked them to show some of the links that generated fees (a fair request, I thought). Well, Yahoo told me they could not reveal their partners! I said I needed proof that there was not some sort of fraud going on. They again refused. Here is the thing. I buy search around "Lotus Notes Spam" for { Link } an IBM business partner. This is a limited search domain, on purpose. Yahoo, in their (not) infinite wisdom, started connected me with the work "spam". Any kind. For GMail (we do not sell a product in that space), for canned meat (a la Hormel) and text spam, blog spam, you name it, and we were being charged $5 per click (my maximum was around $1 before being slammed).

Needless to say, we canceled our Yahoo Search Marketing, but not until they rang up over $2,500 in useless fees!

3) Faking caller ID
Andre Guirard | 2/3/2009 10:36:10 AM

Jim, I'm not surprised to learn that a large, shady telemarketing operation can generate a faked caller ID. But I'm talking about some schlub operating from home, not a company with lots of money acquired by dubious means, to spend on equipment and IT services. I don't imagine ACN [i]organizes[/i] the slamming and sets their reps up to do it really effectively. It would make it significantly harder to disclaim responsibility when sued, for one thing, and furthermore all the evidence is that they [i]don't[/i] do it very effectively.

For prevention, it's generally not necessary to make something impossible. It's sufficient to make it difficult enough that it's not worth the trouble and expense.

ADDENDUM: I see it's actually possible to fake caller ID fairly easily with an internet service or a calling card these days. HOWEVER, ACN of course provide the phone service for all their reps, so if the call comes from one of those phones, it shouldn't be hard for them to determine which phone the call really originated from, if they should choose to try.

4) ACN stinks!
Ray Bilyk | 2/3/2009 1:03:57 PM

They've been doing this for years. They were doing this in Michigan a few years ago, and I got slammed by them. At least they sent you the fax order. For me, they claimed that I called and asked them to switch, but could not provide any proof other than a screen saying it. ACN is not to be trusted, and you should sue the pants off of them for pain and suffering...

My advice is to document EVERYTHING including URL's you've been to and people you've talked to... You're gonna need it! Good luck!

5) Not as expensive as you think...
Scott Skaife | 2/3/2009 1:12:01 PM

A quick google shows that spoofing callerID is not as difficult or as expensive as you might think. { Link } is designed to be easy enough for even the most rudimentary "MLM" worker to use, and will sell you 800 minutes of number spoofed call time for $100. You could fax an awful lot of fraudulent orders in 800 minutes.

Of course, the "It's a rogue contractor/employee!" excuse isn't limited to "MLM" organizations. It is standard business practice across a multitude of industries.

6) I agree with Scott
Jim Casale | 2/3/2009 2:37:33 PM

In my research of how I was getting calls from home were obviously not real phone numbers I also found out how easy it is to spoof caller id.

7) I also have blog post on the slam
David Zarkin | 2/7/2009 6:23:25 PM

Good post. Hope you sent a copy to the FCC and the AG. Let's keep after them. I wasn't bright enough to get what was going on when I got the initial letter. Is this outfit the same as the ACN religious cable channel?

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