At least 15 public libraries in Iowa have been targeted by a toner pirate scam this year. That’s according to the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, which filed a consumer fraud lawsuit against three Orange County, California-based businesses Thursday.
The supposed scam came to light thanks to Cate St. Clair, an attorney by training and library director by trade. When Robey Memorial Library in Waukon received a mysterious bill for about $400 for toner, St. Clair called the number printed on the invoice.
“They were very surly on the phone,” says St. Clair. “They were like, ‘Just disregard it. Just disregard it.’ So I was like, ‘Well, this is super sketchy.’”
St. Clair then shared her story with a librarian listserv. Turns out at least 14 other Iowa libraries have received similar bills this year.
"A couple of them were really freaking out," she says. "At lot of small rural libraries, the yearly budget is small, so getting a $400 invoice for something you don't remember getting or ordering...it's a ton of money."
St. Clair also told her father, Steve, who specializes in consumer fraud at the Iowa Attorney General's Office.
The elder St. Clair is the assistant AG for the lawsuit, which names Central Supply Solutions, Central Supply Center, and Elite Supplies. None responded to requests for comment.
AG Spokesman Geoff Greenwood says this type of scam is not new or unique to Iowa.
In the past, nursing homes in the state and a Hastings motel were also likely contacted by toner pirates. But it's rare to have 15 complaints in a single year.
The scam begins with a phone call and someone, perhaps posing as a vendor, inquiries about the brand and model number of the office photocopier. Later an invoice arrives charging inflated prices for toner.
"They've got the brand name and the model number of your copier, and the person who orders the toner," explains Greenwood. "Someone else may receive the invoice, [and] think, 'Well the other person in the office must have ordered it and I need to pay this invoice.'"
Greenwood says it's not clear if the companies are connected since they each are owned by different women, but St. Clair thinks there is a connection. She says the invoices had the same area code, and used the same formatting.
“Don’t underestimate the information literacy skills of your local library,” says St. Clair. “We traffic in information and communication.”
Iowa libraries the AG believes have been targeted are located in Baxter, Clinton, Camanche, Eagle, Keokuk, Lisbon, Marion, McGregor, Mediapolis, State Center, Tiffin, Toledo, Washington, Waukon and Whitmore.
To avoid falling victim to toner pirates, Greenwood recommends communicating to coworkers that this type of scam is likely. Also it's best to have the individual who orders office supplies pay those bills.