Consumer fraud lawsuit seeks to bar three Orange County operations from sending phony invoices for copier toner to Iowans; Miller cautions Iowa business offices to beware of scheme
DES MOINES – Attorney General Tom Miller today filed a consumer fraud lawsuit against three Orange County, California businesses and their owners, alleging that they placed calls and sent invoices designed to trick Iowa libraries and businesses into paying exorbitant prices for photocopier toner they never ordered.
The lawsuit alleges that Central Supply Solutions, of Orange, California, and owner Brittany Hertsch; Elite Supplies of Irvine, California and owner Krystle Lester; and Central Supply Center of Orange, California and owner Sandra Steinmetz, operate what are commonly called “toner pirate” schemes. So-called toner pirates deceptively solicit commercial entities, including by misrepresenting that they are an entity’s regular toner supplier. In fact, toner pirates are generally not affiliated with the business being targeted or the equipment manufacturer.
According to the lawsuit, libraries, care facilities, professional offices, and other small businesses across Iowa have complained to the Consumer Protection Division after being targeted by the three operations. Miller said the complaints describe a standard pattern:
- First, a cold call gives the impression that the caller is affiliated with the office’s usual source of office supplies. The caller asks the person who answers the phone for the make and model number on the office copier, and also requests the name of the person who orders supplies.
- If the office worker obliges – and many do – the caller uses that information to send the office an invoice for copier toner, billing at three or four times the retail value. The invoice appears authentic – it refers to the target’s copier by make and model, and even provides the name of a supposed “contact person” in the targeted office.
- Many targets recognize the scam for what it is, but some don’t, and pay the grossly inflated invoice. When that happens, the toner operation tries to get the target to keep paying the high prices on an ongoing basis, resulting in mounting losses until the target realizes what happened and stops paying.
“Offices with staff changes may be the most vulnerable to this scheme,” Miller said. “We’ve seen complaints where a new employee assumes he or she is dealing with an established supply arrangement, and gets charged $400 to $500 for about $60 worth of toner.”
According to Miller, toner pirates have targeted public libraries, nursing homes, charities, professional offices, churches, and other relatively small offices for decades. “We had thought the toner scheme was largely a thing of the past, until our Consumer Protection Division received a spate of complaints in recent months,” Miller said.
In addition to a request for a permanent injunction, the consumer fraud lawsuit seeks refunds to Iowa victims, and civil penalties high enough to deter toner pirates from returning to the Iowa marketplace.
General Precautions for Small Businesses, Public and Private Offices
- Every office—public or private—is a potential target for this scam. Printers and copiers are the focal point.
- A staff change involving receptionists or product ordering responsibilities can create a window of special vulnerability.
- Offices should periodically remind employees of how toner pirates work, to prevent being victimized.
- Taping a warning next to a copier or printer’s make and model number, along these lines, “Do not provide this make or model number to callers; Report any such requests to your supervisor,” could be a simple safeguard that helps foil scammers.
For more information or to file a complaint, contact the Consumer Protection Division at www.IowaAttorneyGeneral.gov or email directly to firstname.lastname@example.org. Consumers can also call the Consumer Protection Division at 515-281-5926, or outside the Des Moines area, toll-free, at 1-888-777-4590.