Thursday, 12 December 2013

Diplomatic and Consular Yearbook: opportunity or scam?

Early one Wednesday morning, the office phone rang. The displayer indicated a withheld number. An exceptionally plummy voice came on with one of those first name greetings that is always so irritating coming from a complete stranger, and a “how are you today” type of enquiry that would have been more appropriate for a long lost friend rather than a cold caller salesman.

The caller made out that my law firm (which is, let’s be honest, a minor business and employment law practice in south Birmingham) had been specially selected and placed on a preferred shortlist for advertising space, via editorial content, in the special Legal and Business section of the next edition of the Diplomatic & Consular Yearbook. The marble mouthed caller, “Ben Parker”, dropped a few supposed backers’ names into the pitch, including Chris Grayling (Lord Chancellor), Shailesh Vara (evidently a junior at the Ministry of Justice since October 2013) and Lord McNally (a Lib Dem Minister of State for Justice) and asked if we might be interested.

I made an excuse relating to urgent client work at that particular moment, but asked for a phone number out of a nagging sense of curiosity. This was duly provided: 0208 956 4035.
In a spare moment, I decided to search against the number. It led to the discovery of some notably interesting entries on the “WhoCallsMe” boards for the parallel 4065 number (I have added some links below), all of which suggested that the call might have been an elaborate scam, where the commercial theme – in my case Legal and Business - is simply varied to match who is being called, with different names from the political class dropped in as applicable.

I decided to play along. I put in a return call to Mr Parker. Unfortunately he was not available, but his PA Simon Barker fielded the call. (Who else might be in the team, I wondered? Tarquin Harker? Marcus Larker? Crispin Marker? Otto Tarka? Rufus Farquhar?) The camp voiced Mr Barker went into effusive detail, explaining that an advertiser from the specially selected shortlist could choose either a single page at the bargain price of £2,750, or a double at £4,950. Ten minutes of sales pitch later, I asked him to send me an email, which he enthusiastically agreed, saying that all I needed to do was cut and paste a standard form agreement to take up the advertising space – just a couple of lines - into a reply email.
The email duly arrived, confirming that the Yearbook had been “appearing for 40 years, as an annual showcase of excellence”. It was accompanied by a page of testimonials, full of effusive praise as to how useful and valuable the Diplomatic and Consular Yearbook was. The UK embassies of Cuba, Myanmar and Mozambique stood out (anyone feel the urge to cross-check with them?) as indeed did the names of three eminent politicians. Two of them, unfortunately – Michael Howard and Kenneth Baker – were described as MPs even though they had both been elevated to the House of Lords some time ago, Lord Baker in 1997, Lord Howard in 2010.

There was a useful link to what was held out as their website, which looked plausible at first sight but to my mind full of hot air upon closer inspection. Their business address was evidently a serviced office centre in Finchley, London.

As for the cut and paste, it comprised the single sentence, helpfully in bold type: “Confirm booking of a full page (including corporate profile and a 500 word editorial) in the Diplomatic Yearbook under the section ‘Excellence in Legal Services’ at a sponsorship cost of £2,750.00 & VAT.”  
I sent a reply email and asked for confirmation of their registered office address and company number; their partners’ identities and home addresses, if they were not in fact a limited company; and their bank details. I explained that this was all a matter of due diligence checks on a prospective new supplier. It was not long before Mr Barker phoned, promising the information I had requested, and enthusiastically asking once again which of the two options I was most interested in, the £2,750 or the £4,950. I hedged my bets.

When his inane drivel came to an end, I looked more closely at the WhoCallsMe contributions. They contained an entry on 22 September 2013 described as an ex employee’s spilling of the beans upon how this operation worked. The idea, so it was reported, for this and a number of other such yearbooks, was to extract the commitment to take out advertising, then to let however many months go by, and then render an invoice as the prelude to some ever increasing nasty threats if the invoice was not paid. Evidently the bold type commitment has some force.
My due diligence email, perhaps not surprisingly, was not answered despite a reminder.

Now, you might think that anyone who was na├»ve enough to commit to such a hefty fee, in the hope that an advertising page or two would lead to a solid investment return from the diplomatic and consular community, was a fool who deserved to be parted from his money. Well, maybe. But let’s think back to the original phone call, with all the top people’s names being dropped in, and the promotional material with all of those supposed testimonials from the embassies and the senior politicians. Along with the supposed quality and reputation of the Handbook itself. Does the term “misrepresentation” begin to ring a bell? And that’s only civil law. Trade descriptions misdemeanours, should there be any, would bring in the criminal law.
Not that this would be much comfort to anyone who had actually paid the money and then wanted to try to get it back, on the basis that the end product, if it ever emerged, was not remotely near what had been promised. There is no sign of any limited company details, or anything to suggest who owns the business, just that serviced office address in Finchley.

Some of the correspondence on WhoCallsMe suggests that there are two disqualified directors behind it all, whose names I will withhold. Well, fancy that. The parallel websites that a determined searcher might encounter, if looking to get to the bottom of it all, do refer to a named business entity, and anyone minded to look at whois.net to find out who owns the domain name diplomaticandconsular.com may find some further enlightenment.
So is it a scam? Well, it’s not for me to say. People can make their own minds up. But let’s just finish by saying that the initial calls were rather unfortunate one for “Ben Parker” and “Simon Barker” to have made. Of course they were not to know that one of the two parallel plots in my legal/political suspense novel Sackcloth Ashes & Penance was all about how someone tried to pull off an elaborate scam on a solicitors’ firm. So may I suggest that if anyone has read this blogpost and thereby saved themselves from making a commitment they might regret, the very least they owe me is to buy my book. A screaming bargain as a Kindle or other e-reader download, and an ideal Christmas gift, especially as I remain convinced that the parallel political plot is still the first and possibly only novel to have the 2010 UK General Election as a factual backdrop.

Links: -
The Diplomat Business Office: http://www.diplomaticandconsular.com/
Whois.net: http://whois.net/
Sackcloth Ashes & Penance (Smashwords): http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/301537