Expo Guide is an international organisation based in Mexico that deceives people into signing up to their online expo directory at www.expo-guide.com before sending them an extortionate bill. Thousands worldwide have fallen for this scam.
EXPO GUIDE is an online business directory that you can find at www.expo-guide.com. It is run by a company called Expo Guide, S. de R.L. de C.V., based in Mexico, which sends out an innocent looking directory application form to companies world-wide that are exhibiting at business expo events of all types. This company's details are as follows:
Expo Guide, S. de R.L. de C.V.
Ave Horacio # 340 -3
Col. Chapultepec Morales
C.P. 11570 Mexico D.F.
Fax: + 52 (55) 26 24 26 97
Here is an example of the letter sent out by Expo Guide in 2006 to a natural health company in the UK, forwarded to us, that was timed to arrive shortly before the Natural Trade Show in that country:
(The address of the business to which this form was sent and other identifying details for all scanned forms on this page have been blurred out.)
Looking at that letter, most people would naturally assume that this is a directory listing for the Natural Trade Show itself, and that it was free. So Expo Guide is passing themselves off as a free online guide connected with the particular show itself, one that is contacting customers merely to make sure their contact details are up-to-date. It is only at the end of the letter that they sneak in: "Should you wish to place an order for a payable insertion please use the attached order form. Modifying data free of charge can only be done online."
And here is another Expo Guide sent out in 2010 to a company exhibiting at an instrumentation conference also in the UK:
Notice that the legal name of the scamming organisation in Mexico at the bottom of these letters has changed: in 2006 it was Commercial Online Manuals whereas in 2010 it has become just Expo Guide. By making the legal name generic as well makes this scam more difficult to spot.
Notice that the word "free" in these letters is underlined and that the commercial branding is so generic as to be effectively invisible. They do state that "Expo Guide is independent, objective and not affiliated to any organiser or marketing association," but by sandwiching the word "organiser" between descriptions that could apply to any legitimate exposition organiser, again the truth is cunningly hidden.
A sign-up form is sent with this letter along with a pre-paid envelop. The address on the envelop is not in Mexico for European recipients (that would ring too many alarm bells), although it can be for US recipients. Addresses include:
Expo - Guide
DAIC - OPS / AUTHORISATION 0832
95919 ROISSY CH DE GAULLE CEDEX 9
PO Box 466
Apartado Postal Nr 39-064
C.P. 15621 Mexico D.F.
Now here is the form that is sent along with the introductory letter above. You will notice it has no branding. This particular one is a few years old — the newer ones have Expo Guide as the legal name on the bottom left of the form, again to further increase the deception.
In this example, you can see that the invisible branding passes the form off as one that seems to be directly associated with the Natural Trade Show. In fact, the reason this scam works so well is that the scammers have chosen a totally generic company name — Expo Guide — which hides the fact that the organisation has nothing to do with the particular exposition listed on the paperwork.
Most people exhibiting at business expositions around the world are sent a lot of different forms like these to fill out by the expo-show organisers, including directory listings. So it is very easy for Expo Guide, with its invisible branding and deceptive layout, to con a percentage of recipients, lulled into a sense of false security by the visibility of the real expo organisers name and the invisibility of the scammers identity, into signing these forms.
Here is an example of a more recent form sent to exhibitors in the Ukraine. Notice that they have put Expo-Guide branding in at the top, but as a shaded background image that one does not notice. Anyone glancing at this letter would assume it is from the organisation and address printed at the top — ENERGOPROM — not some hidden company hiding with a generic name shown as a shaded background image:
(The yellow highlighting of the price on the above form has been added for emphasis.)
What the Expo Guide scammers appear to be doing a lot now is sending these forms to countries where English is not the primary language (such as the Ukraine example above), making it even easier for them to deceive their victims.
Notice the "stamp, legally binding signature" label at the place to sign the form. By putting "stamp" first they downplay the second "legally binding signature" bit. (Whoever put this scam together is certainly very clever and knows scam psychology!)
If you do read the small print, then you will see that you are signing up to on online directory that is nothing to do with the particular exposition listed, and which you are agreeing to pay, in this case, €1181.00 per year for a minimum of a 3-year contract. Not only that, if you do not cancel in writing within 3 months before your 3 years is up, you will have another year to pay and another after that until you cancel in writing.
Also notice that they state in the fine print that you have a ten-day cooling-off period from the date of submission, but most people will first hear of this scam (because of the deceptive way it is done) when they receive their first invoice after that ten-day period has passed, and we even have reports from people who have tried to cancel in good time but were told that their cancellation missed the deadline.
Expo Guide try to legitimize their scam by doing the whole legal bit in faint small grey type on the back of the form you are signing. Here is the back of this one which we have had to modify with a graphics program (raise contrast and adjust the gamma) so that you can see anything at all. (Without these graphic adjustments, the scan below is illegible.)
And here is another more recent example (again with graphic enhancement, otherwise it would be too difficult to read here):
This is just further deception to make sure that the unwitting recipient does not realize what he or she is signing up for.
When the form is filled out and sent off in the postage-prepaid envelope, a few weeks later you will receive a letter like this one along with an invoice and a credit card payment form:
And below is the invoice that they send you. For 95% of people who fell for this con, this is probably the first they realize that the whole thing is a money scam.
Volksbank Slovensko in Slovakia, and all other banks around the world hosting Expo Guide accounts, should be ashamed of themselves for helping these scammers collect their money. We urge you to write to these banks explaining why you think it unethical that they host Expo Guide accounts.
And here we have the payment form:
From here on, if you miss the payment deadline, you will receive a reminder invoice that has acrued interest:
Notice the words "contract terms" and "obligations" have been underlined to try to make you feel bad not paying. This is necessary manipulation for them as they know they do not have a legal leg to stand on.
Finally, you will start to receive correspondence from their "Legal Department" such as the following examples:
The first is a relatively soft letter, the first line in a barrage of abuse. This "it is not our fault" tone seems to be a new tactic to cajole the victim into paying, trying to legitimize their scam before a strong barrage of more forceful letters threatening debt collection. The scammers probably realize that being too forceful too early makes payment less likely, so the softly softly hands-in-the-air reasoned approach seems to be the new first step.
The letter has no legal basis and is factually full of lies. For example, "both our letterhead design and the content of our correspondence clearly indicate the accuracy and independence of our services" is an obvious lie (see scans above which show how branding is hidden). Their whole scam is based on deception, and their "Legal Department" knows this.
Others examples of letters from the "Legal Department" are much more forceful and threaten debt collection.
What frightens most people are the "debt collection" letters with mounting interest. These are specifically sent to you or made to intimidate you into paying.
Here we see the Volksbank Slovensko scammer's bank again playing host to an obvious scam, and we have the notice that "Your customer account has already been scheduled for a court recovery procedure in" and then the name of your country. Here they are ratcheting up the fear and pressure with a seven day pay or go to court "Legal notice" document, again written on letter head with red warning text at the top. Again, we are unaware of any instances where they have actually gone to court — this is just to strike the fear of God into you in an effort to prise open your wallet.
Here is another example with a different bank:
Notice that the bank has changed to Raiffeisen Bank, Czech Republic. Does this mean that Volksbank Slovensko has dropped their account or is this just another bank that seems willing to host a scammer's bank account? (The above notice had the address Postfach 172, 2940 Mödling, Austria on the envelop so you can see they seem to have their tentacles in many different countries, but never quite enough so you can legally pin them down.)
These document are designed to frighten their recipients, racking up the pressure to pay, again because there is actually no real legal basis to force payment. This is again a manipulation exercise, with "court recovery procedure" underlined to frighten you into thinking that the bailiffs will soon be knocking at your door. (They won't because they would have to win a court order first, and as far as we are aware they have not successfully taken any non payers to court.)
Then you will receive the 7 day demand or else!
Notice in this 7-day demand, they are threatening "a court recovery procedure", and again we are not aware of any court cases. This is all smoke and mirrors.
After this, you may start to receive emails and phone calls chasing you for the money. The man or woman on the call will try to make you feel like you are a criminal not paying, trying to persuade you that it is your obligation to pay and that if you don't then you are doing something very wrong. Again, all manipulation.
If they do call you by phone, immediately put the phone down. If they write letters to you, do not respond.
If you still do not pay up and brave it out further, they still will not give up. Next comes the dubious debt collecting agency, which in Europe is the following:
187a Leontiou Street
4th Floor, Tsacon Court
PO Box 53397
The name signed (which may well be false) is:
Peter Grant (or Alex Lesley)
Senior Credit Manager
VAT No: CY 10216888E
The VAT number is registered to ICAA Management Ltd. and what we assume is a person's name - A. ΛΕΟΝΤΙΟΥ (A. Leontes or A. Leo in translation?) to the address above, so it is a valid VAT number (which may imply that some people are paying them the scam money as they need a valid VAT number in order to process the payment in the EU).
Tel: +357 25 270 666
Fax: +357 25 270 777
Their website at www.icaacy.com is a typical template site, displaying space-filler garbage statements (such as "ICAA operates a system of PC based Windows NT networked workstations running our own in-house software") — no doubt put up online to try to increase the deception and pressure on their victims. If you do a Whois on the domain name, they are hiding behind an anonymous domain registration service called SilentRegister.com. (We suggest you complain to this anonymous register as they do have a policy that their service cannot be used in bad faith. But Silent Register appear to be ignoring complaints at the moment which questions their business practice.)
We recommend, based on what has worked for others, that you ignore the letters and do not take phone calls. In fact, do not engage in them in any way because the more you engage with them, the more they won't leave you alone.
Here is a "legal" email sent to one victim of this scam:
From: Helen Simpson <email@example.com>
Date: Xxx, Xxx xx, 2012 at x:xx PM
Subject: LEGAL LETTER//Attn of xxxxxxx
XX XXXXXX 2012-
Attention of XXXXXXX
We feel we have tried our utmost in assisting you to resolve this matter with our client Expo Guide - OUT OF COURT.
You have failed to co-operate with us on behalf of our client.
You will now be receiving a Legal letter from our Lawyer/Legal department at ICAA on Monday 23 January 2012
You will have 3 banking days to respond / to make payment.
Payment by T/T or Credit Card (make sure you write your reference number on document)
Failing this, your file will be returned to our client on Thursday 26 January 2012 as an open/unpaid debt.
You will then be receiving in the near future a summons to appear , or to send a legal representative to represent you/your company in the court of law, as our client will proceed to redeem the full outstanding amount of USD 4,713.00 plus legal expenses,
Senior Credit Manager
INTERNATIONAL CREDIT ASSESSMENT AGENCY
187A Leontiou Str. 4th Floor.
P.O. Box 53397
Phone: +357 25 27 06 66
Fax: +357 25 27 07 77
They will then try to do a deal with you: pay the first invoice and "the second and third invoices will be cancelled without penalty, and all other charges for late payment and Legal Notices will be credited off the account." How generous!! At last you see a way to minimise the fallout from your stupid mistake in signing a document deliberately designed to mislead you into signing it. Some probably pay up at this point thinking that this is the best deal on the table and that they may as well reluctantly accept it. But in reality, making deals implies a legitimate contractual agreement has been broken between two parties, which is clearly not the case here. This is just more trickery to extract money from you.
We used to advise readers to send a response to them about being mis-sold a service and hiding important detail in the small print, and therefore the contract is not legitimate, but we have now changed out minds over this as it just engages these scammers further, producing letters like the one below, sent by the ICAA 'legal team' to a victim in Europe. This is just heavy-handed fear mongering:
This whole letter has been written to frighten you into paying up. We find it amusing that they often refer in these responses to their legitimacy because of the lack of any negative court decision, which is a bit like a novice tennis player claiming to be brilliant at the game because he has never lost at Wimbledon! There are no negative court decisions because Expo Guide avoid court at all costs as they know they would lose.
Here is the next threatening letter in the sequence from above:
If you are reading this and outraged by what is going on, please email or letter to Banco Santander S.A. with a link to this page to complain that they are receiving money obtained by deception. Here are their details if you want to do this:
If you are in the United Kingdom, check out Santander UK Complaints
Otherwise try going direct to:
Banco Santander S.A.
Main Telephone: 91 289 00 00
Corporate Telephone: 902 18 20 20
You could also consider sending the email below:
Dear Sir or Madam
I wish to make a complaint that Banco Santander (Madrid) is giving banking services to Expo Guide SC (Account: 2110338334, Swift BSCHESMM), perpetrators of a well-known directory scam in Europe and around the world, a scam that is being run from Mexico. There are many businesses that have fallen for this scam and it is well documented online.
This scam involves intimidation, but the Expo Guide scammers never take it as far as court as they know they would lose and could no longer claim that they have never had a negative court judgement, which gives them quasi-legitimacy.
These types of directory scam are well known, see http://www.richardcorbett.org.uk/directoryscams.htm, but whilst the EU has been trying to stamp them out, which it has had some limited success in because many of those perpetrating this scam are within the EU, this particular one is being run from outside the EU, which makes it particularly pernicious and difficult to stop.
Now that you are aware that Expo Guide SC is an organisation running a directory scam, we hope that you will no longer offer them business services, helping them process money which has been taken from customers around the world in an illegitimate manner.
I look forward to your response.
If you still refuse to pay, after all this "sound and fury", they invariably go away to focus their attention on easier and more gullible prey, realizing that intimidating legal threats and trickery do not and will not sway you.
We have noticed as a general rule that the more you engage with them, the more validity you are giving to their scam, and the more they never leave you alone thinking you are closer to breaking and paying them off for peace of mind. So the best way to deal with them seems to be to not communicate with them at all: do not answer any letters and do not take any phone calls. It does takes a thick skin dealing with them effectively, but that is understandable as you are dealing with people with very thick skins and you have to play them at their own game.
For those who unfortunately do fall for this scam, for the record, here are some scans and emails kindly sent to us regarding cancellation and a final payment invoice.
First, here is a cancellation email sent by ICAA to a client to which was attached a final invoice (see below) and a cancellation agreement. This allows the "customer" (the scammee) to cancel "services" (the scam) involving online listing by the Expo-Guide S.C. (the scammer):
From: Anna White [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Thursday, March 15, 2012 14:17 AM
To: John Smith
Subject: Cancellation Agreement and Full and Final Invoice
Dear Mr. Smith
Please find attached 'cancellation agreement' as discussed, with full and final invoice.
You have three methods of payments:
1. Wire Transfer - Please take care to follow the 'Bank details' as indicated on the form, and send proof of payment by return when funds are arranged. PLEASE BE AWARE IS THAT YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE BANK CHARGES.
2. Credit card payments can be sent to me for review and I will email to my client for processing. Alternatively, you can fax directly to my client. You will need to call your credit card company because you will need to authorize payment since it is going outside of Cayman Islands. Please note that some credit card companies will charge you.
Please make the check out to beneficiary name Expo-Guide S.C. and send via FEDEX or your preferred express courier to the following address:
Ave Horacio # 340 – 3
Col. Chapultepec Morales
Mexico D.F. 11570
Could you please scan to my email a copy of the check and tracking number?
Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Senior Credit Manager
INTERNATIONAL CREDIT ASSESSMENT AGENCY
Phone: 011357 25 27 06 66
Fax: 011357 25 27 07 77
This is the cancellation agreement that was attached to this email:
And here is a scan of a final invoice:
So in a nutshell, what do you do if you have fallen for this scam?
First off, we are not your lawyers so we can't give you legal advice. But we can certainly tell you what has worked for many other people in a similar situation. Always bear in mind that NOBODY, as far as we are aware, has ever been taken to court over this scam as the scammers would almost definitely lose and this would be very damaging to their future operations. Far better for them to hide in the shadows, where it is easier to appear quasi-legitimate, claiming that they have never had a "negative court decision". These scammers know that in the cold glare of a legal court, the whole charade will be exposed, and that is something not in their interest because it would bring them under scrutiny.
If you want peace of mind, you can check with your own Trading Standards organisation — chances are they will be very well aware of this scam.
So now lets look at what Expo Guide have effectively done:
- They have passed themselves off as a directory associated with the particular expo organisation written on their forms, and they do this by having invisible/generic branding and deceptive form/letter layouts. The particular expo is carefully chosen to match the target company.
- They have mis-sold a service by hiding important detail such as payment in small print, and in the very faint grey print on the back of the sign-up form. The way their letters are written is also misleading and misdirecting.
- They use a lot of legal terminology in the small print to make the form seem legally binding — a binding contract.
- They are using intimidation to try to extract money from you, which potentially turns this fraud into extortion.
In most countries, there are laws against passing yourself off as something you are not, and mis-selling by hiding important detail in small print (and grey print).
When we spoke to UK trading standards about this scam they told us that they had a thick file on Expo Guide — that this fraud was well-known to them, and that they generally advised people who have fallen for this type of directory scam not to pay them.
As for their legal terminology — it has all been put in there to frighten you. And most people are very intimidated when these sorts of swindles happen, especially when they start getting letters and phone calls from Expo Guide's debt collectors chasing the money. And what is more, the calls will be from people of your own nationality to make it more intimidating.
So once again, here are our recommendations on how to deal with this scam based on what has so far worked for others:
- Report the scam to your local trading standards organisation and to the police. Their advice when we contacted them was not to pay.
- DO NOT PAY THEM ANY MONEY and certainly do not be foolish enough to fax credit card details to Mexico!
- Do not communicate with them in any way whatsoever and wait out the legal-threat storm. Remember, scams like this persist because a small percentage of victims buckle under the pressure. So if you receive official-looking "debt collection" letters or telephone calls about the "debt", simply ignore them.
- To help stop this scam, please consider complaining to the bank that receives the extorted money. If enough people complain, they will be forced to close the accounts. The banks we know who are or have been involved in collecting this scammed money are Banco Santander S.A. (Madrid), Raiffeisen Bank (Czech Republic) and Volksbank Slovensko (Slovakia). Send them a copy of the scam letters and a link to webpages like this one to make your case.
Also, for a bit of moral support, it is good to network with other people regarding this scam so you don't feel so alone facing it. The following websites do an excellent job in giving a forum and great advice to those who have fallen for this scam:
The first link above — mu:kaumedia — also makes the claim that by writing to the Mexican Trading Standards, you can get the Expo Guide scammers off your back because they are forced to cancel your account. We are not sure if this actually works, but it might be worth a try if you are worried. Here are the contact details of the Mexican Trading Standards that mu:kaumedia give:
PROFECO: Procuraduria Federal del Consumidor, Av. Jose Vasconcelos
208 Col. Condesa, Del Cuauhtemoc, Mexico D.F.
(Of course it is just much simpler to not bother writing letters that may take a long time to get answered, if indeed they ever are, and just ignore the Expo Guide's demands and they most certainly will eventually give up and go away.)
What is truly frightening, however, is to think of how much money Expo Guide must be raking in if even only a tiny percentage of the many thousands, each year, that are scammed into signing these forms are subsequently intimidated enough by the situation to pay up. But remember if you do pay up, and that is your choice, you are certainly helping to perpetuate this fraud.
The Expo Guide scam is actually just one small scam in a whole array of directory and guide scams. As a general rule to spot these sorts of scams, NEVER sign anything that has "legally binding" by the signature without triple checking the fine print. Normal directory entries for legitimate organisations will not generally have "legally binding" by the signature.
And finally, if you want to take this further and try to stop this fraud, why not complain to the companies that are supporting it (see addendum below). This includes the banks that seem quite happy to accept money obtained fraudulently, as well as the PO Box companies and domain private registers that are quite happy to hide those that perpetrate scams such as these. If enough of us complain, scammers like this will find it harder and harder to operate.