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Our blog has moved! Please subscribe to our current blog at http://www.bbb.org/northwest/torch-talk-online/ for updates on the most current marketplace issues – such as scam alerts and small business trends – and content specific to the Northwest region.

Hiring Our Heroes

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Hiring Our Heroes, a veteran initiative program of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, helps veterans, transitioning service members and military spouses find meaningful employment opportunities.

Better Business Bureau serving the Northwest had the honor of helping host a Corporate Fellowship Program event in DuPont, Washington for Hiring Our Heroes on April 20.

These types of events give service members the opportunity to interview for corporate management positions. These roles are often a challenge for military leaders to find when they are transitioning out of service. This program helps transitioning members have better success at landing these positions. With a more than 90 percent placement rate at Joint Base Lewis-McCord, it has helped many transitioning service members land corporate management jobs.

Many local organizations partner with Hiring Our Heroes for events. Organizations such as Starbucks, UPS and Nordstrom were involved at the DuPont event as well as Alliance Enterprises and Amazon, who are both BBB Accredited Businesses. Repeat participation from businesses is common because many businesses enjoy working with Hiring Our Heroes. It gives businesses the opportunity for community and business engagement.

For businesses who would like to get involved, visit the Hiring Our Heroes website. Hiring Our Heroes’ Veteran Employment Advisory Council and Corporate Fellowship Program are great opportunities for companies to get engaged with the members transitioning out of service. The fellowship program started in Washington at Joint Base Lewis-McCord under Rob Comer’s lead. It now operates in several locations across the nation.

BBB also wants to remind businesses of our Military Line and Accredited Charities.

Companies such as Hiring Our Heroes and Camo2Commerce are applying to become BBB Accredited Charities. Accredited Charities are a great resource for donors, businesses and others trying to find a charity that will use their funds wisely.  There is no cost to becoming an accredited charity.

BBB Military Line is an outreach program that focuses on educating service members about financial literacy and tools to navigate the marketplace. BBB Northwest is proud to support service members with opportunities such as Hiring Our Heroes.

For more information about Hiring Our Heroes, be sure to check out Western Washington’s Facebook Live interview at the DuPont event with Marketplace Manager Aly Schmidt, and Hiring Our Heroes Representatives, Rob Comer and Rob White.

Tax Day Reminders

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Tax Day has been pushed to Tuesday, April 18 because of a holiday in the nation’s capital this year. This gives you an extra few days to file your tax return or pay any taxes owed to the government. With the federal tax deadline upon us, Better Business Bureau serving the Northwest wants to inform taxpayers of time extension options, how to pay owed taxes and the new IRS debt collection change.

Extension to File Your Tax Return

Need some time to get your tax return pulled together? The IRS gives people who complete the proper form by Tax Day a six-month extension of time to prepare their tax return. To prepare and e-file an extension for free, use this list of Free File software companies posted on the IRS website.

Payment Options

Although an extension gives you more time to prepare your tax return, it doesn’t give you more time to pay any taxes owed to the government. Tax Day, April 18 is the deadline for most to pay taxes owed.

Can’t pay now and want to avoid penalty and interest charges? Here are some payment options:

New Change to IRS Debt Collection

Starting this month, the IRS will begin contacting a few hundred taxpayers whose overdue federal tax accounts are being assigned one of four private-sector collection agencies. Taxpayers who have received multiple contacts from the IRS in previous years and still have an unpaid tax bill will be assigned to a private firm. These taxpayers will be receiving multiple contacts, letters and phone calls, first from the IRS about this change.

The four private groups awarded the contracts to collect on debt are:

  1. CBE Group, 1309 Technology Parkway, Cedar Falls, IA 50613
  2. Conserve, 200CrossKeys Office Park, Fairport, NY 14450
  3. Performant, 333 N Canyons Parkway, Livermore, CA 94551
  4. Pioneer, 325 DanielZenker Dr, Horseheads, NY 14845

Better Business Bureau serving the Northwest warns taxpayers to watch out for scammers posing as IRS or private collection agents. Private collection firms will only be calling about a tax debt the person has had – and has been aware of – for years and had been contacted about previously in the past by the IRS.

To find out how you can tell the difference between a legitimate debt collector and a scammer, visit www.bbb.org/irscalls.

The IRS also advised any taxpayer who wants to make a complaint about a private collection agency or about the behavior of a specific employee to contact the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA). If you run into one of these scams, let others know about your experience by reporting it to BBB Scam Tracker.

February Scam Wrap-Up

Top Scams 2015

By Veronica Craker, Content and Communications Director

The following are scams that were reported to Better Business Bureau serving the Northwest in February. In most instances names and locations have been omitted to protect the victims’ privacy.

ALASKA 

This month there were 13 scams reported in Alaska with an estimated $1,300 lost.

Inheritance Scam 

An Anchorage woman reported she lost $1,200 in a fake inheritance scam. The woman reports she was contacted by the email alansotosotos@gmail.com letting her know a relative had passed away and left their estate to her. But in order to obtain the inheritance she needed to send money totaling $1,200 via MoneyGram to three separate people for legal fees and a death certificate. She was also convinced to send a copy of her 2015 income tax return.

Publisher’s Clearing House Scam

An Anchorage man reports he was targeted by a Publisher’s Clearing House scam. The man reports he was told he had won $250,000 six years ago, and the deadline to collect was expiring. The man was told to pay a $250 filing fee and the check would be delivered to his house. The man did not pay the fee.

IDAHO

This month there were 109 scams reported in Idaho with an estimated $2,400 lost.

Lottery Winner Scam

A Homedale woman reports she lost $1,700 to a lottery scam. The woman reports she was told she won $3.5 million and a new car. She was instructed to send two money orders to a woman in Florida and a man in Utah. After sending to money orders, one for $699 and another for $1,099 the Post Office stopped her from sending anything else. She soon realized it was not legitimate.

Tax Collection scam

A Nampa woman reported she was the target of a tax collection scam. The woman reports she received a recorded message saying she owed money to the IRS. These types of scams increase during tax season.

MONTANA

This month there were 26 scams reported in Montana with an estimated $950 lost.

Fake puppy website

A Hamilton man reports he lost $700 when he tried to purchase a puppy online. The man states he tried to purchase a puppy from Jiminies Shetland Sheepdog Kennels. He paid $700 via MoneyGram for the dog. Then he was told he needed to pay an additional $1,200 for insurance. The Hamilton man contacted local law enforcement and has not sent any additional money.

Advance Loan Scam

A Missoula woman reports she lost more than $200 when she tried to get a payday advance loan from 60mincash.com. She reports, she paid $200, but never received her loan. Now she is being contacted for more money to pay back the loan she never received.

OREGON

This month there were 100 scams reported in Oregon with an estimated $200 lost.

Fake Invoice Scam

A Portland woman reported she lost $45 in a fake invoice scam. The woman reports her office received hard-copy invoices to renew multiple domains expiring in the upcoming months. The invoice states: “This notice is not a bill, it is rather an easy means of payment should you decide to switch your domain name registration to Internet Domain Name Services.” One of the invoices was paid before the mistake was discovered.

Utility Scam

A Portland woman reported they were the target of a solar power program scam. The woman reports they received a pre-recorded call asking them if they were interested in reducing their energy bill by 14 percent. She clicked “1” for “yes” and then spoke with a man who requested personal information for billing. The woman asked what company this was and was told “Community services” and then “Solar Power Program.” When she pushed the caller with more questions they became angry with her and hung up on her.

WASHINGTON

This month there were 246 scams reported in Washington with an estimated $4,650 lost.

Can You Hear Me Now? 

A Seattle man reported he lost $100 to the “Can You Hear Me Now?” phishing scam. The man reports his wife received a call and since she doesn’t speak English he answered the phone for her. He reports the caller said they were adjusting their headset and asked him if he could hear her. The man checked his credit card statement the next day and found an unauthorized transaction for $100.79 for a California hotel.

Online Purchase Scam

An Auburn woman reported she lost $559.45 in an online purchase scam. The woman reports she purchased medical products through www.evamedicals.com. She was unable to pay for the order online, but was sent an email from the company requesting she make a payment via Western Union or MoneyGram. The woman sent the payment, but never received her products. She tried calling the number listed, but it was not working.

 

How to Refresh Your Brand in 2017

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The close of one year and the start of the next brings many things. For most individuals and businesses a new year means a new start, providing a clean slate with which to move forward. While this may not be technically correct – after all, the clock striking midnight on New Year’s Eve doesn’t erase previous performance – the mindset of change and starting over can be refreshing, especially for small businesses with big goals.

Whether 2016 was a year overflowing with success or wrought with challenges, the coming of 2017 is the perfect time to refresh your brand, fine tune your focus, and get started on the right foot. A brand refresh can have great potential, reminding you of your vision, ensuring consistency, and encouraging growth rather than stagnation. Here’s what you can do to ensure 2017 is your best year yet.

Connect With Your Audience

Most companies choose to leave outsiders in the dark when it comes to business strategy. For many, this is a logical decision, preventing competitors from overtaking your ability to gain ground. However, this approach can have the opposite effect with customers, putting up walls that create unnecessary distance.

The beginning of the year is a perfect time to inspire some loyalty and emotional ties. Consider posting a blog summarizing your activity and successes in 2016 and thanking your customers and fans for all that they do for you. When shared on social media, these posts provide the kind of information that stimulates a connection between you and your customers.

Target a New Market

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If you’re a small company or a new business, you may not be reaching everyone who can make use of your products and services. In order to maximize potential, use the start of a new year as inspiration to grow and improve.

Take time with your marketing team, and review who you are targeting, what you are targeting, and where the majority of your sales are coming from. With this information, you can draw conclusions regarding what areas you can approach more aggressively, and which audiences likely aren’t receiving the attention they deserve.

Reevaluate Costs

Even the most successful companies in the world can feel the pain of pinching pennies. To improve your odds of financial success in the new year, it’s important to take a deep dive into your expense reports.

Start from the top down and evaluate each category that drives your spending. Sure, you may not be able to do anything about monthly rent, but making minor energy saving changes, like limiting printing to must-have reports, can really add up over the course of the year. Look for unnecessary expenses that your team can do without that won’t compromise employee morale, and make some cuts for the new year.

Try New Marketing Techniques

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How you market your products and services can be a great opportunity for growth and change. With so many options from social media marketing to email newsletters, there’s bound to be a strong strategy you’ve never considered.

Instead of doing the same things day after day, take a look at what your marketing campaigns may be lacking. Are you tracking your success with Google Analytics? Are you focusing solely on Twitter instead of taking advantage of Facebook? By taking the time to identify shortcomings, you can find a great way to move forward in the new year.

Brainstorm New Ideas

When the status quo is positive, it’s easy to fall into a predictable rhythm every year. However, there’s no good way to grow without incorporating changes. The start of another year is the perfect time to start brainstorming new ideas, whether that means putting more focus into research and development, or simply improving community relations with volunteer activities.

Consider putting out a suggestion box and soliciting ideas from your team. Take at least one option offered, whether functional or recreational, and implement it company-wide. This strategy not only shows that you listen to feedback, but can also demonstrate a willingness to keep moving forward.

A brand refresh offers many benefits, providing a new perspective on your corporate identity and an opportunity to build connections with current and prospective customers alike. If you’d like to do more than simply exist in the new year, this can be your chance to revitalize your brand and move your business forward. By changing up marketing techniques, building emotional connections, and launching new products or services, you help ensure that 2017 will be a smashing success.

Have a Healthy and Happy 2017!

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In 2016 consumers turned to BBB serving the Northwest more than 5,328 times to look up health clubs, fitness centers, and gyms. Unfortunately, BBB has processed an estimated 90 complaints for the fitness industry in 2016 as well. The complaints ranged from billing and collection issues to contract issues.

To get the most out of your membership and to avoid signing up for something you can’t afford and won’t use, follow these tips:

  • Warm up with a tour. Before signing up at any gym, ask to take a tour of the facilities. Make sure the gym has the equipment, classes, and trainers you are looking for. Ask about busy times, wait times for equipment, whether classes require pre-registration, availability, and cost of trainers.
  • Look for discounts. Gyms often offer specials at the beginning of the year. From free week passes to heavy discounts to first time members, this is a great way to see if the gym is a good fit for you and save on sign up costs.
  • Don’t feel coerced. Do not give in to high-pressure sales tactics to join right away. A reputable gym will want you to read the contract thoroughly before signing up. Make sure that all verbal promises made by the salesperson are also in writing. Be sure to ask about the cancellation policies and how membership is renewed.
  • Know the true costs. Gyms often use special introductory offers to encourage new members, but the price could go up more than you budgeted once the initial period is over. Make sure you understand what the regular monthly fees will be and what they include.
  • Check bbb.org. BBB has Business Reviews on more than 15,000 health clubs, fitness centers, and gyms. Read what previous customers say and see how the businesses respond to complaints.

To find a list of accredited fitness centers in the Northwest visit our Accredited Business Directory.

November Scam Wrap-Up

Top Scams 2015

The following are scams that were reported to Better Business Bureau serving the Northwest in November. In most instances names and locations have been omitted to protect the victims’ privacy.

ALASKA

This month there were seven scams reported in Alaska with an estimated $354 lost.

Online Purchase

A woman in Anchorage reported she lost $354 after a charge from an unknown company was made to her debit account. The woman states she received the charge from Prince Bags. She called the number associated with the charge, but was unable to speak with a real person. She reported the incident to BBB Scam Tracker.

BOA Spoof

A woman in Anchorage reported she received a phone call from someone claiming to be from Bank of America. The caller spoofed the BOA number convincing the woman it was a legitimate call. The caller told the woman her account was going to be cancelled. The woman does not have a BOA account, but called the number back to get more information. Once the caller realized the woman did not have a BOA account they hung up on her and her number was blocked.

OREGON

This month there were 27 scams reported in Oregon with an estimated $700 lost.

Rental Scam

A woman in Portland reported she lost $24.99 in a Craigslist Rental scam. The woman reports she found an apartment listing on Craigslist about a property she was familiar with. She contacted the renter and was told to pay for a credit report at creditupdates.com. The woman never heard back from the renter and when she saw the ad again she inquired with a different email and received the exact same response and was told to conduct the credit report.

Direct TV Spoof

A woman in Portland reported she received a phone call from someone claiming to be from DirectTV. The caller spoofed the DirectTV number which convinced her that it was a legitimate call. The caller told the woman she was at risk of losing service. When the woman asked for a number she could call to confirm he was with DirectTV the caller became angry with her. The woman hung up and then confirmed with DirectTV that the call was fraudulent.

IDAHO

This month there were 36 scams reported to Scam Tracker out of Idaho with an estimated $13,500 lost.

Online purchase

A woman in Post Falls reported she lost $190 after she ordered a face cream from an online company that advertised it as a “free offer” after the buyer covers the shipping fees. The woman reports she had an allergic reaction to the cream and was still charged $175 on top of the shipping fees. She tried contacting customer service, but reports the company refused to refund her money.

Government Grant

A woman in Shoshone reported she lost $350 in a Government Grant scam. She reported she was told by a man she was the recipient of a $700 grant. She was told to purchase an iTunes gift card for $350 and call him back with the card number. After she did that she was told to send an additional $700. The woman ceased contact and reported the incident to BBB.

MONTANA

This month there were six scams reported to Scam Tracker out of Montana with an estimated $850 lost.

Fake Invoice

A woman in Bozeman reported her company received a fake invoice for $487.60 from Global Business Systems. The woman reports the “company” billed her for toner. She states her company does not deal with this business and ignored the letter. She reported to BBB that the company is threatening to send them to collections.

Tech Support

A woman in Livingston reported she lost $99 to a fake tech support scam. While on her computer she received a pop-up claiming to be from Microsoft warning her that her PC had a virus. She was given a phone number to call to have it removed. The woman called the number and gave the “customer representative” her credit card information and approved a charge of $99 to have the virus removed. Unfortunately, this type of scam is common.

WASHINGTON

This month there were 52 scams reported to Scam Tracker out of Washington with an estimated $31,600 lost.

Online Purchase

A woman in Mount Vernon reported she lost $75 when she attempted to purchase an item from Sweet Paula’s Pods. The woman reports she purchased the items from http://www.sweetpaulaspods.com. A few days later she emailed the company asking for shipping information. When she never heard back from the company the woman looked up the business online and discovered there were other customers with similar problems concerning the business.

Sportswear Scam

A woman in Orting reported she lost $51.98 to an online sportswear store. The woman reports she purchased a Husky/Seahawks sports sweatshirt from www.sportsfanatic.co, but never received the product. She has an appending charge listed as “Summit View LLC” for the amount.

 

Top Five Small Business Scams

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Written by Kirstin Davis, BBB Marketplace Director

The Small Business Administration reports the percentage of self-employed seniors has been steadily on the rise since 2000. The data shows the percentage of individuals 62 years and older who were self-employed increased from 4.2 percent in 1988 to 5.4 percent in 2015. Better Business Bureau knows scammers often target seniors, so it is important senior business owners stay adept to common scams occurring to small businesses. Here are a few tips for small business owners and local nonprofit organizations who have a lot to think about and ways to avoid these common scams.

Internet & Phone

Watch out for ransomware, phishing, URL hustle and spoofing scams. Scammers play on fear, convenience and lack of technical knowledge. BBB receives complaints each year from business owners who have been scammed out of money or important business information by people who know how to speak in business terms.

Directories

A business owner or office manager may receive an invoice for a printed or online directory renewal notice. Scammers are counting on the fact that business owners have a lot on their plate and will make these notices appear legitimate, local or industry targeted. Keep a list of directories you are published in and evaluate the values of those directories on an annual basis.

Office Supplies

Business owners may receive a box of supplies as either a “gift” or with an invoice included.  Scammers are taking the opportunity to see if a busy owner will pay the invoice with no questions asked. If the “gifted” items are sent back, the business may receive a bill for a high percentage restocking fee. Another red flag is a contact describing a “going out of business” sale offering significant discounts on supply items that are misquoted or never arrive at all.

Overpayment

A scammer may over pay for the item or service and then ask for a refund to be sent by wire or cashier’s check. Most likely the form of payment was fraudulent and the scammer is trying to pocket the over payment. The business owner is then out of the product, if sent, and additional revenue.

Vanity Awards

“Best of” or “Who’s Who” in your industry are great recognition. Business owners want to be sure the award is legitimate and that it isn’t just a way to pay very high prices for plaques to display in your office.

Follow our blog for more consumer protection tips and information on BBB investigations.

Workplace Gift-Giving Dos and Don’ts

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It’s that time of year where companies are preparing for the holiday and gift-giving season. Giving and receiving gifts may be enjoyable, but it is important to understand proper workplace etiquette before going shopping.

Better Business Bureau serving the Northwest offers the following tips for gift-giving in the workplace:

Follow Office Policy

Before you do anything check with your manager or human resources department to understand the inner-office gift exchange policy. There might be certain stipulations on what you can and cannot give for gifts. For example, it might be against company policy to give cash or alcohol out during business hours.

Skip Your Boss Unless Its Baked

While it’s tempting to give your boss a gift as a thank you for his leadership, it’s not actually appropriate to give a higher-up a gift. If you are set on giving your manager a gift, opt for baked goods or something homemade that doesn’t cost a great deal. You can also pool your money with co-workers to give a present that’s from the entire department.

Stick to the Agreed Upon Amount 

Office gift exchanges usually have a price limit to avoid overspending. Don’t try to impress your colleagues by going over the agreed upon price. Shaming co-workers is not the best way to create office camaraderie. On the other hand, if you cannot afford to participate in any gift exchange, simply bow out. It shouldn’t be a requirement in your company to partake in the festivities. So don’t feel bad if you sit this one out. Again, you can always bake cookies and bring those to your office mates instead!

Avoid the Risqué 

Pass on any gifts that come across as sarcastic or vulgar. Even if you know the gift recipient very well, crude gifts have no real place in the office. Stick to something appropriate that compliments the receiver to avoid making anyone feel uncomfortable.

Say Thank You

Mind your manners and be sure to thank the person who took the time to get you a gift. You can do this by either sending a thank you note or by shooting over an email of gratitude.

8 Ways Your Small Business Can Take Advantage of Small Business Saturday

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Small Business Saturday has gained plenty of steam the past few years as a great way to promote local “Mom & Pop” shops that don’t benefit from the Black Friday mega-retail crowd and the Cyber Monday e-commerce traffic. The “shop small” and “dine small” day was initially started as an American Express campaign in 2010 and many small businesses have begun to embrace the day with their own marketing campaigns and promotions.

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Here are eight ways your small business can benefit from Small Business Saturday:

Spread the Word

Print Small Business Saturday signs to hang by your point of sale or inside your business’ window. Consider creating postcards to send or pass out to remind customers about Small Business Saturday. Also, be sure to update your website. Small businesses with high quality online stores have a distinct advantage. Make sure your inventory has been updated online and special promotions are prominently displayed. Be sure to cater to the busy shopper by ensuring your website is fast, processes transactions quickly, and is optimized for mobile use.

Use Social Media

Social media can be your greatest promotional asset when used correctly. The Small Business Saturday page on Facebook has more than three million fans, so use it as a resource. Always use the official #SmallBizSat or #ShopSmall hashtags on Twitter and Instagram to highlight special offers or discounts since the topics will be trending.

Email Your Customers

If your business keeps record of your current customers’ email addresses, then send them all an email blast to inform them of any events or promotions you are running for Small Business Saturday. Your most loyal customers can become your greatest marketing advocates since they will help spread the word for you.

Advertise Online

Even though many small businesses have a limited budget to spend on online advertising, you can take advantage of ad credits offered by many advertising platforms. If you already spend money on online advertising, be sure to adjust your messaging for Small Business Saturday. Also, keep track of what you spend so you can calculate your Return on Investment (ROI) to see if the advertising was worth the increase in sales.

Offer Coupons and Discounts

Nothing drives more customers to your store than incentives. After all, incentives are the reason Black Friday has become the behemoth that it is. Take advantage of this by offering coupons or discounts for your products or services. Make sure to include your coupons or discounts in your promotional material leading up to Small Business Saturday.

Expand Your Hours

Extend your shopping day for customers on that Saturday by opening earlier or staying open later to make it even easier for customers to shop at your business location. Be sure to include your one-day-only hours in your promotional materials so your customers know they can fit your business into their busy holiday schedule.

Make it an Event

You can create even more excitement for your local small business by doing something different to draw attention. For example, serve free coffee in the morning, display balloons outside your store, hire a musician to play music in your store, or create a contest for a drawing. You can also partner up with other businesses. Build on each other’s customer base by having multiple businesses in the same line of stores or area actively participating in Small Business Saturday with promotions to increase visibility and attention for all local businesses.

Promote a Cause

Small Business Saturday is the perfect time to give back to the community that has given so much to you. Consider donating a portion of your sales to a local charity of your choice, and display this for your customers to see. You may also consider matching donations from your customers to your chosen charity.