How To Handle Toner Pirates and Office Supply Scammers

By: Dan Larkin
August 3, 2022

While many organizations focus on trying to keep themselves safe from cybercriminals and sophisticated phishing schemes, it’s easy to forget that one insidious scam uses technology that’s been around since 1876 — the telephone.

Office supply scams might not seem as scary as ransomware, but a single scammer recently was caught after bilking organizations out of $126 million. He had been running an office toner scam that conned companies into paying for toner they didn’t need. He isn’t the only one. Commonly known as toner pirates, these old-fashioned con artists will invoice organizations for toner and ink they didn’t order or didn’t receive, or they’ll provide inferior products at shockingly high prices.

How a Printer Toner Scam Starts

A printer toner scam may start innocently enough, much like this: the phone rings at a small- to mid-sized organization. When a staff member answers, a pleasant voice on the other line says they’re from an office supply company with a generic-sounding name. They’re following up on a recent toner order to offer a fantastic discount or even free supplies, and they just need to confirm the details of the office’s printer to ensure they’re sending the right supplies. Also, it’s important to take care of this quickly, as this amazing deal won’t be around for long!

That’s a bit strange, right? After all, if this organization had already placed an order with the office supply company, wouldn’t they already know what supplies were needed? At any rate, if your staff member provides these details, those allegedly discounted or “free” supplies may or may not arrive. If they do, they’ll typically be of inferior quality and shouldn’t be used. In either case, a bogus or overinflated invoice will eventually turn up.

Sometimes the unwitting organization pays the invoice due to a lack of clarity about approved vendors and purchasing protocol. Other times, printer ink scammers may resort to high-pressure tactics and litigation threats to force payment. Suddenly, that friendly voice on the other end of the line will become anything but, and reveal their true toner pirate selves.

What To Do if You Receive Toner for Your Printer That You Didn’t Order

Here’s a bit of good news. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is aware of these pirates and has announced different settlements against companies that send businesses unordered office supplies and follow up with invoices the businesses don’t owe. The FTC’s stipulated orders against the fictitious office supply companies include violations of the Telemarketing Sales Rule and the Unordered Merchandise Statute.

The precedent provides future scam victims with certain protections. First of all, if you receive unordered merchandise, it’s yours. The law says you don’t have to return it, and the scammer can’t legally collect on it, even if you used the items before you realized they were unordered. However, take it from me --- NEVER use unordered, “free” toner or supplies. The scammers rarely send authentic OEM merchandise. They send cheap junk that isn’t good for your machines and could void any existing service contracts or warranties.

How To Defend Against Toner Pirates and Office Supply Scams

Staff Training

Your best defense against all this scam nonsense is to train your staff to be on guard. Go over common red flags that often accompany a scam, and feel free to share this blog with them. Encourage them to be wary of high-pressure sales tactics and common scam buzzwords:

  • Free
  • Urgent
  • Limited Time
  • Act Now

When in doubt, staff members should ask for references or a business address and insist that price quotes are provided in writing. A legitimate office supply company should have no problem accommodating these requests.

It’s also helpful to keep everyone in your office informed about who your approved supply vendors are, so if someone calls who’s not on the list, they can just hang up. Of course, sometimes, a caller may pretend to be an approved vendor. Still, even these scams should raise suspicion soon enough, as they’ll ask questions to which the real provider would already know the answers, like your business address, contact name, and the equipment you use.

It can also be hard to turn down the promise of free supplies, especially for organizations that are strapped for cash. So be sure to let your staff know that those “free supplies,” even if they do arrive, should never be used.

Appoint a Specific Staff Member To Handle All Suspicious Calls

It’s tough to hang up on a friendly voice. So to keep things simple, you can also designate an individual staff member with an excellent internal “scam radar” to handle any calls that rouse even the slightest bit of suspicion.

Check the Mail

In addition to fraudulent toner and other office supply invoices, be on guard for domain renewal invoices from a company that isn’t your current registrar or other notices related to protecting or renewing your domain or brand name. Don’t automatically pay every invoice that arrives without a second thought. If an invoice comes in that seems a bit out-of-the-ordinary, investigate it.

Finally, don’t pay a dime if the bill is for supplies your organization didn’t authorize.

Contact Authorities

If some scammer tries to shame or pressure you into paying for unordered items, inform the bully that you know what they’re up to, and you won’t be pushed around. DO NOT PAY THEM. Instead, contact the appropriate authorities:

The sooner these scammers are caught and punished, the safer your organization and others will be from office supply fraud.

Additional Help

Streamlining your vendor list can help your staff spot a fraudulent invoice more easily. But if you have to pick one area to focus on, it should be printing supplies. Toner piracy is one of the most common office supply scams, as toner needs to be replaced often, and many companies fail to track their printing supply costs.  

Another relatively easy way to never fall victim to a toner pirate is not to order toner or inks at all. Instead, many organizations choose to contract with a Managed Print Services (MPS) provider that can save them up to 30% on print-related expenses. An MPS provider can manage and maintain your entire fleet, monitor your toner or ink use, and automatically send you the right supplies when you need them. Then, if a toner pirate does come calling, or any fraudulent print supply invoices arrive, you’ll know it’s time to batten down the hatches.

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Topics: Copiers & Printers