Washington, DC – A U.S. federal judge has issued a temporary restraining order that could finally derail the European publishers of Fair Guide, an allegedly bogus directory that has targeted trade show exhibitors and has been a thorn in the side of exhibition organizers for several years.
The order was granted in Chicago late last month and orders the publishers of Fair Guide, who are based in Slovakia and have been identified as Wolfgang Valvoda and Susanne Anhorn, to stop doing business in the U.S. It also requires banks, clearing houses, transaction processors and mail-forwarders to cut off all services to them.
The order marked a major victory in the long-running campaign to exorcise Fair Guide from the trade show industry, but Cathy Breden, COO of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE), told Trade Show Executive (TSE) it may require more than that to end the saga once and for all. “Fair Guide has tormented exhibitors for years,” Breden said. “But both IAEE and the Center for exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) have been solicited just within the last two weeks, even after the FTC order was for no more solicitations after February 2013.”
“It is important for those who have been scammed to send us copies of the solicitation letter, form and envelope, as we continue to develop the case again Construct Data, Breden said.
The Federal Trade Commission this Winter sought a restraining order in federal court on the grounds that Construct Data Publishers was actively using shady paperwork to dupe exhibitors into agreeing to pay more than $5,000 to have their company listed in a bogus “exhibitor directory” for upcoming trade shows.
Warnings to exhibitors about Fair Guide have become a regular feature on the websites of major U.S. trade shows. “The show organizers were beside themselves over this,” Steven Hacker, the former president and CEO of IAEE, told TSE.
Exhibitors received unsolicited but seemingly innocent letters from the defendants asking them to confirm their basic contact information for a Fair Guide listing that was being published in advance of a particular show. The form falsely suggests that the parties have a preexisting business relationship with the organizer and that the directory listing is related to the recipient’s participation in the named trade show or exhibition. “Many recipients do not notice a statement, buried in the fine print on the form, that by signing and returning the form, they agree to pay the defendants $1,717 per year for three years,” the FTC said in its announcement. “Often, the person who returns the form is not even authorized to enter into contracts for their employer.”
Construct Data Publishers allegedly used high-pressure tactics and threats of collection agencies and stiff late fees to badger the exhibitor into paying the fees, which Hacker said were sometimes paid by the alleged victims simply to settle the matter and avoid risking their credit rating. “You had exhibit managers for major corporations who were embarrassed by this and had concerns about losing their jobs due to their naiveté,” he said.
The payment demands instructed the exhibitors to send funds to a post office box in Naperville, in suburban Chicago. The restraining order prohibits U.S. banks from processing such payments and also bans anyone from forwarding mail to Construct Data Publishers. The company was also temporarily banned from attempting to collect money from exhibitors and has had whatever financial assets it holds in the U.S. frozen.
The restraining order was sought after an investigation involving the FTC, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the attorneys general of Illinois and California, the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, and Better Business Bureau offices in New York, Chicago, northern Illinois and Ohio.
It was not clear how much money exhibitors had forked over for their Fair Guide listings over the years, but the FTC said in its statement it was in the millions of dollars. “It will be interesting to see if any monetary damages can be collected from them,” Hacker said.