[UPDATED below 6/6/17] An award can be described as a prize or mark of recognition in honor of some real achievement. At least, that is what most people think of as an award. We sometimes hear from readers who send us “award” notices that feel more like scams to them or clever marketing manipulation tricks than actual awards. We’re not referring to the malicious tricks of Internet criminals or liars of dubious intent. We’re talking about that gray zone occupied by clever shysters who use deceptive, but legal practices to make money through “awards” they present to someone or some organization. Are these scams? We present two very different “awards” below and you can decide for yourself.
Best of Awards for Middle/Elementary School
On November 14, a school in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts received two similar emails sent to two different employees… “[SCHOOL NAME REMOVED] School has been selected for the 2016 Best of Manchester Awards for Middle School” and “[SCHOOL NAME REMOVED] School Alumni/Ae has been selected for the 2016 Best of Manchester-by-the-Sea Awards for Elementary School.” While the first email came from info @localawardi.com, the second email came from info @system-award.com but both were signed “Best Regards” by the Manchester Business Recognition or Manchester-by-the-Sea Business Recognition. (So far as we can find, there is no official Manchester Business Recognition.) If you’ll look at both of these emails it will be crystal clear that they came from the same sender 2 seconds apart.
Readers may wonder why we might question the honor of bestowing an award to any school. So, let’s dig a little deeper. On the surface it may appear that this school has been selected twice for an honor or special recognition, first as “2016 best of” Middle School and then as a “2016 best of” Elementary School. However, Manchester-by-the-Sea is a very small town in Massachusetts with only one public and two smaller private middle and elementary schools in the entire town. Clicking the link in either email triggers a redirect to the website manchesterbythesea.localawardscenter.org and a “More About” page titled “Recognizing and Honoring the Best of Business.” The web page very cleverly has graphics that seem to cite the school as “Best of 2016” even though the web page describes how awards can help a business, not a school.
There is even a “Frequently Asked Questions” page to address many common questions such as “Do I have to pay for an award to be a winner?” and “Shouldn’t my award be free?” And, of course, you’ll see the big link at the top for “Claim Your Award.” If you read the answer to the question “What is the Manchester Award Program?” you’ll notice that it is quite general and business-centered. They don’t list detailed criteria how award recipients are selected… “For most companies, this recognition is a result of your dedication and efforts as well as the work of others in your organization that have helped build your business.” Sound like a school award?
And now that the school has been notified that they were selected for this most prestigious award, the school is encouraged to purchase one of several plaques to commemorate their selection, at a cost ranging from $149.99 to $229.98, so they can tell the world that they have been honored!
Who is behind this wonderful recognition and the domain localawardscenter.org? This is where it gets really interesting from our perspective. A WHOIS lookup of localawardscenter.org informs us that the domain was registered by a Mr. Tim O’Reilly from Houston, Texas on August 22, 2016 and representing an organization called “Local Awards Center.” But what about the domains the awarding emails were sent from? A WHOIS lookup for system-award.com and localawardi.com reveal that they were both registered to a Mr. John Jordan from Berwyn, Pennsylvania on November 6, 2016.
We did a little investigation into the domains owned by both John Jordan and Tim O’Reilly and discovered quite a few that have apparently been used in some sort of award notification effort, including these:
online-site.org myawardsite.org awardlocal.org awardbestof.org
awardonlinei.com ilocalsystem.com ilocalaward.com localisystem.com
localiaward.com localawardi.com local-award.com systemiaward.com
systemawardi.com system-award.com awardlocali.com awardlocal.com
iawardlocal.com site-system.org online-site.org
UPDATE: (March 28, 2017)
On March 28, 2017 one of the schools mentioned above received another set of award notifications but this time coming from different domains that those listed just above. They were:
yourawarded.com online-awarded.com best-awarded.com
UPDATE (June 6, 2017):
Three employees at the school described at the top of this article received another round of awards with links pointing to the same exact pages shown by the screenshots above but from different domains. The domains used were: center-award.org centerbestof.org
Each of the new award emails said "If you would like to stop receiving advertisements please write to: Business Recognition, 337 Garden Oaks Blvd, Houston, TX 77018." When we conduct a search for this organization and address we only find a debt collection agency at this address. If we put quotes around "Business Recognition" to force that search, all we find are emails to other businesses informing them of their award. Does any of this sound legitimate to you?
We also discovered a long list of interesting posts and articles around the web about this and other Award Programs dating back at least three years:
Award Scam A Big Loser from the Better Business Bureau
Beachwood Wins Bogus Award from the Beachwood Reporter
Official Declaration of CERTIFIED AWARD
Let’s leave the Internet for this second award and turn to snail-mail. One of our readers sent us a very exciting, and extremely detailed notice that he received from the Judging Office & Decisions Center, PO Box 2905, Kansas City, KS 6610-2905 that you see below. There is so much official gobbledygook in the two pages below that we can’t possibly cover it all! We count at least 18 times that the recipient is informed how much money he has won… Or has he? We challenge you to read both pages very carefully and try to find a single instance where the recipient is told without question that he has won. We did find on the first page below, in the lower right corner, that it says “Please indicate your guaranteed payment option for direct issuance of AWARD if determined as the WINNER officially.” But wait, you say, in the middle of the second page it says [NAME REMOVED] Congratulations, You have Just Won $1,327,940.00! Wrong! Look closely at the full paragraph. The sentence actually reads…
…by mandate of my professional office, the sole requirement if you have and return the preselected winning number is that you respond by >>MAIL REPLY<< only, thereby enabling our judges to lodge a corporate certification statement subject to the following pending pronouncement… [NAME REMOVED] Congratulations, You have Just Won $1,327,940.00
Notice 3 key words in the above paragraph… “if you have”
This magnificent piece of donky-poo is nothing more than a street-corner snake-oil pitch. No doubt, it also cures all ills, solves world hunger, and clothes the needy. And all for $12.99. That’s right! In order to collect your (possible) winnings, you have to enclose a check for $12.99 made out to ANC, the Award Notification Commission of Kansas City, Kansas. If you look up the Award Notification Commission of Kansas City on the Internet, you’ll find a loooong list of links about this artful bullshit. Here are just a few:
Sweepstakes Offer Not Illegal, But Still Raises Concerns
Complaints Board (Look at the list of complaints at the bottom related to the ANC)
Better Business Bureau (Showing this “legal” scam goes back at least to 2010!)
So, dear reader, caveat emptor…. Many would describe these sophisticated award mills or notification commissions as nothing more than scams designed to separate you from your hard-earned dollars.