The letter requesting $150 in corporation renewal fees that Dan Jehl received three weeks ago appeared official. It came from Business Services Division, the name of the division within the Indiana Secretary of State's office to which he had paid the initial fee to incorporate Public 1, the small Fort Wayne nonprofit watchdog group he helped found two years ago. But the more he thought about it, the more indignant he became. Good thing, too.
The letter was “a bogus solicitation for information and funds,” according to the Indiana Secretary of State's “real” Business Services Division, which responded to an e-mail complaint from Jehl about the seemingly outrageous fee. But many businesses and nonprofits across the state have fallen prey.
“Unfortunately, we know of some business that have paid the money,” said Jim Gavin, communications director for the SOS office. When asked how many have been duped, Gavin said, “It's in the dozens - that we know of.”
Jehl, the volunteer director of Public 1, said when he received the bogus request, “I thought, ‘What is a small do-good group like ours supposed to do? We don't have dues or membership fees. We don't have any money.” The irony is, “If we'd had the money, I would have cut a check and paid them,” he said.
The state charges for-profit businesses $30 bi-annually for registration renewal fees; nonprofits pay just $10 per year, which is good news for Public 1.
“We do believe we know who is sending these,” Gavin said of the phony solicitations, noting Secretary of State Todd Rokita is now gathering canceled checks and other pertinent information from businesses and nonprofits that sent money. Rokita is working with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service to garner enough evidence to bring charges and is also working with law enforcement and the Indiana Attorney General's Office. At least two of the return addresses listed on the letters are actually UPS stores in Indianapolis that have no connection to the scam, Gavin said.
The first letters asked for $125 in corporation renewal fees, but Gavin said, “Somewhere along the line, they upped the amount. They're obviously accessing some sort of database of businesses.” All corporations registered with the state are listed online, as are names and addresses of nonprofits.
Mike Coil, president of the Better Business Bureau of Northeast Indiana, said he was unaware of the deceptive solicitations, but the agency is alerting members.
When The News-Sentinel called the phone numbers listed on two separate letters of solicitation sent to Indiana businesses from Indiana Corporate Compliance, men who said they were located in Atlanta answered the phones. One man, who would identify himself only as Leo, a receptionist, said the company was Corporate Compliance and that, “We assist corporations with noncompliance. We process the annual minutes for shareholders.” He said he was “in a warehouse” and did not know the name of the owner of the company.
Rokita is asking any business or nonprofit that has received such a letter without the official seal of the State of Indiana and has paid money to contact the real SOS Business Services Division at 1-317-232-6576.
“Please also remember you can securely comply with your legitimate business entity reporting requirements to the state securely online through the INBiz portal found on my Web page at www.in.gov/ sos/business,” Rokita said in a written alert about the scam.