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Consumer News Release

For immediate release -- Friday, February 12, 1999.
Contact Bob Brammer -- 515-281-6699

Miller Files Suit Against Alleged "Toner Pirate"

Consumer lawsuit alleges California company ran "a classic toner pirate operation" to cheat businesses in the sale of copy machine toner.

DES MOINES -- Attorney General Tom Miller said today that the State Consumer Protection Division has filed a lawsuit against a California company alleging "a classic toner pirate operation" of the type that has plagued businesses for years.

"Toner pirates" typically telephone small businesses and other offices and use deception to induce victims into switching their copy machine toner supply orders to the scam artists -- at exorbitant prices. Toner is the dry powder ink used in most copy machines.

Named in the lawsuit are: Corporate Office Supply, Inc., or COS, of 12623 Imperial Highway, Suite 203, Santa Fe Springs, California 90670; Holly Diane LeBlanc of South El Monte CA, president and owner of Corporate Office Supply; and Karen Mora, Michelle Nunez, and Catherine Marie Vallett (AKA Cathy Simms), all employees of COS.

"We allege this is a flat-out scheme designed to deceive and cheat small businesses and other offices," Miller said.

The suit, which was filed Thursday afternoon in Polk County District Court, asks the Court to issue an injunction, order restitution to Iowa victims, order the defendants to "disgorge" money acquired from the alleged scheme, and assess a civil penalty up to $40,000 per violation per defendant. Miller urged any victims to contact his office.

The alleged "toner pirate" price-increase pitch:

Miller said the State's lawsuit alleges Corporate Office Supply used a classic "price-increase pitch," which involves several elements. An initial phone call to the targeted office creates the false impression that the caller represents the office's usual toner supplier. The caller asks for the model number of the copier. The caller then says that the price of toner for that model is going up sharply -- but that the supplier has saved some back at the old, lower price if the business will only make a quick order. If victims place an order, they may learn later that the caller actually did not represent the business's regular supplier, that there was no price increase, that the so-called "current" charge is highly inflated, and that their new bill for toner is up to four times higher than a typical price.

The suit alleges that Corporate Office Supply victims "may not realize that their supply line has been commandeered by a 'toner pirate' and may pay grossly inflated toner prices to COS on a continuing basis."

The lawsuit states that a wide range of offices are targeted by such schemes, including small businesses and professional offices, churches and synagogues, charities, associations, and government offices.

"Office supply schemes have been preying on Iowans for years," Miller said of toner pirate and other office-supply scams. "Offices need to be on guard to avoid being cheated."

Tips to avoid being cheated by "toner pirates":

Miller said office-supply schemes can involve toner, paper, lighting, and cleaning supplies. He said offices should take several steps to avoid becoming victims of such schemes:

Train everyone who answers the phone to recognize phony office supply "pitches."

Instruct employees not to provide information to unfamiliar callers about office copiers or other supply needs and arrangements. Don't give names of office managers or persons responsible for purchasing (toner pirates may mention those names in a later call.)

Designate one person to be in charge of or oversee ordering and paying bills. Always review invoices and payments to avoid phony bills or office supply scams.

If a "toner pirate" or office supply scam deceives the office into placing an order, do not accept the shipment or pay the bill. Instead, report the incident to the Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division at 515-281-5926.

Businesses also may obtain brochures and information about scams from the Consumer Protection Division, which is cooperating with numerous Iowa organizations in the "Office Scam Alert Project."

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