A website set up to advise small businesses about how not to get caught up in a European directory scam has come under increasing pressure from the company it exposes, European City Guide.
StopECG.org has received lawyers' letters from St Louis in the US insisting its domain name infringes the European City Guide's ECG trademark and that unless it hands over the domain an injunction will be sought to seize the URL.
European City Guide doesn't actually own the ECG trademark - though it has just applied for one - but the threat of legal action has been enough to worry site owner Jules Woodell. He is a former victim of the company - which has in the past fallen foul of the UK's Office of Fair Trading - and a man who knows better than most the company's aggressive tactics.
That the letter stems from St Louis is interesting in that the European City Guide and its assorted other businesses that run the same scam are based and act solely in Europe. The company is largely grounded in Spain but its financial base is, perhaps inevitably, in Switzerland.
Whether St Louis has a different interpretation to the rest of the US and the world of how trademarks can be applied to websites, we do not know. But even with an injunction, Mr Woodell is not obliged to do anything since he is based in the UK, as is his ISP. The StopECG.org site details the scam, lists the various regulatory body decisions made against European City Guide and provides useful advice to companies caught out.
European City Guide and its other sister companies make their money by sending out forms to small businesses which offer what appears to be a free directory service. It is only once the form is filled in and returned and the details entered on their limited site that an unexpected invoice is sent out, Mr Woodell says.
In his case, he was informed he had to pay £500 for his inclusion on the directory. A review of the small print also reveals that the contract is for three years and will be automatically renewed unless the company is informed in writing.
Mr Woodell's refusal to pay was greeted with stern legal threats and harassment from a Swiss debt collection agency closely associated with the company. Interest and additional fees continued to be added to the sum, adding further pressure.
However, it was only when Mr Woodell looked on the European City Guide site and contacted each of the other 23 businesses listed in his area that he realised they had all been duped. One had already parted with £900. He swiftly set up a mailing list on Yahoo so other small businesses under pressure could talk to one another. The list was inundated. Following legal threats from European City Guide though, Yahoo followed its usual practice and shut the list down. Mr Woodell is now seeking a replacement list host.
Despite Mr Woodell's best efforts, it seems European City Guide remains free to continue in business. The UK's Advertising Standards Authority upheld complaints made against the company in 1999. The Office of Fair Trading ruled against the company two years ago but is powerless to do any more since the company is not based in the UK. "It is hiding behind international borders," says Mr Woodell. "And so far we estimate 200,000 people - all small businesses - have been caught up in it."
His site does, however, provide people faced either with the company's mailshot or with legal threats a quick way to assess the situation. A search for "European City Guide" on Google lists Mr Woodell's site at number three - and plenty of other, similar sites. That, more than anything, is why the company is playing heavy legal games.
Fortunately, those legal threats are as valid as the thousands it issues every month in order to extract money from duped businesses across Europe. ®