St. Louis, Mo., June 30, 2010 -
Several dozen Illinois businesses may be the latest victims of an advertising scam that for years has been tricking people in the bi-state region into paying for ads in publications that have either very limited distribution, or which do not exist at all.
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) advises owners of small businesses in Illinois, Missouri and other states to be extremely cautious when purchasing advertising from representatives of Metro-East Coupon Publication
, or other programs affiliated with Charles B. “Chuck” McMillen
Until recently, McMillen operated his business out of a house in Collinsville, Ill. Police say it appears that McMillen is behind a long-running scheme to get businesses in Missouri and Illinois to pay for advertising in fictitious newspapers. A police investigator who looked into the scheme two years ago said then that the operation may have victimized hundreds of businesses in the bi-state area.
The most recent case involves more than 60 businesses throughout the Metro-East area. The businesses include a donut shop in Wood River, Ill., a bowling alley in Bethalto, a clothing store in Edwardsville, a storage facility in Godfrey and a medical equipment supplier in Highland. Owners or managers of the businesses said they paid between $99 and $495 for advertising after a salesman promised them their ads would be seen by thousands of bi-state residents. Many of those who bought ads now say they have no evidence that the shopper, Metro-East Coupon Publication, ever was distributed to the general public.
Michelle Corey, BBB president and CEO, said it appears that McMillen and his associates may have cheated Missouri and Illinois businesses for as long as 7 to 10 years.
“This seems to be a widespread and very organized scheme to take advertising money from honest, hardworking business people,” Corey said. “These people thought they were buying ads to help their businesses thrive. Instead, it appears that they ended up with nothing.”
Two sisters from Bethalto said a phone solicitor indicated to them that their ads would be part of a coupon packet mailed to Metro-East, Ill., residents or inserted into area newspapers. They said they received a flyer from the company, claiming their ads would be seen by 30,000 readers each month in Madison, St. Clair, Montgomery and Macoupin counties.
The women said they contacted Bethalto police when they saw no evidence of advertising after several weeks. Soon after, they said, the company mailed them a 16-page newspaper filled with ads, including ads for their companies. They said they have not been able to find any evidence that the newspaper was distributed to the public and they say they now believe a small number of copies may have been printed to appease advertisers.
The owner of the Edwardsville clothing and fashion store said she paid $150 for what was supposed to be a direct mail advertising campaign. Information supplied by the company promised “an aggressive direct mail coupon publication” sent to more than 60,000 residents. She said she has heard from no one who has seen her ad and also believes the newsprint shopper may have been distributed only to those people who took out ads.
Of 15 businesses that paid for ads with Metro-East Coupon Publication and were contacted by the BBB, all said they had found nothing to indicate that the ads had been distributed to the public.
Court records in Jersey County, Ill., show that McMillen, 40, pled guilty to theft by deception in April 2008 after he was arrested in connection with a similar advertising scam in Grafton, Ill., in September 2007. In that case, McMillen reportedly represented to operators of Great Rivers Tour Boat Company that he was collecting a $195 advertising payment on behalf of the Jersey County Shopper newspaper, when he was not affiliated with that business.
McMillen’s sister, Chondis Cooper, pleaded guilty in Lincoln County, Mo., in connection with a similar case in February 2008. Lincoln County Court records show that a relative of McMillen told police in that case that McMillen had started the scam in early 2000 and used fictitious company names “to sell bogus advertisement spaces to companies and to con companies into believing they have past due bills with his company.”
When the BBB phoned Metro-East Coupon Publication, a man who identified himself as “Kelly” and said he was a representative of Metro-East Coupon Publication told the BBB by phone that the company is legitimate.
“We’ve got a publication in hand,” he said.
He said 10,000 copies of the paper had been published, but later increased that figure to 50,000. He said the publication was distributed to Wal-Mart stores, grocers, service stations and other retail locations throughout the Metro East. He declined to provide the names of any stores where the paper could be found.
He said he would contact the company’s attorney and its corporate headquarters in Florida, instructing both to contact the BBB. The BBB has not been contacted by either an attorney or anyone from Florida regarding the case. When a BBB investigator asked to speak to Charles McMillen, the man said McMillen was not available. He described McMillen as a supervisor.
Invoices from Metro-East Coupon Publication list an address of 406 Bernice St. in Collinsville. The woman who owns that house said McMillen had lived there until about two weeks ago. Officials in Illinois report that McMillen now lives in an apartment in Edwardsville.
The BBB offers the following tips for businesses buying advertising:
- Make sure you are dealing with a legitimate company. If you are considering advertising with a business you do not know, ask for past copies of the publication and references from past advertisers.
- If the company claims that it distributes its advertisements in free shoppers, find out where and how those publications are distributed and contact some distribution points to make sure they are getting the publications.
- Make sure that the person you are paying is actually a representative of the company you have contracted for advertising. If you are unsure, contact the company directly and ask them.
- Make sure you have the right to approve your ad before it is published. A mistake in printing a phone number can doom an ad to failure.
- It is generally a good idea not to pay in advance for advertising, especially when dealing with a new company.
Contacts: Tracy Hardgrove, vice president, 314-645-3300, email@example.com; or Bill Smith, Trade Practice Investigator, 314-645-3300, firstname.lastname@example.org