This is a bit dated now, but still very valid for anyone in our business.
Agency clamps down on 2 websites that duped would-be oilpatch workers
By MIKE OLIVEIRA
TORONTO (CP) - Canada's Competition Bureau says it has shut down two Edmonton-based websites that duped job seekers around the world with promises of lucrative salaries, but oilcareer.com is already back online and open for business. A Google search for "oilcareer" leads to countless allegations of fraud from people saying they paid hundreds of dollars for services they didn't receive, and then couldn't get a refund as originally promised.
"We received complaints from Canadians but also from Americans, from Africa, Asia, Australia and Europe. Certainly the oil and gas industry is one that globally attracts people with visions of grandeur and significant incomes," said Brian Lemon, spokesman for the federal agency.
It took five years of complaints from Internet users and persistent work by anti-scam websites to convince the agency to act. The result is a consent agreement, similar to a plea bargain, which outlines penalties for false and misleading representations about the effectiveness of the services, the validity of a "money-back risk-free guarantee," and phoney testimonials.
"The (law) requires that before you make a testimonial you must have written prior consent. In this case, these people didn't exist, which makes it very difficult to get their prior written approval," Lemon said. "Testimonials are a huge, huge part of anybody working on the Internet and that's what makes this as egregious as it is. These were just fabricated stories, fictitious names, people who didn't exist, all intended to lend legitimacy and credibility to what amounted to a scam."
Strategic Ecomm Inc. and Matthew Hovila agreed to pay a $100,000 fine - the maximum penalty - and post an admission of guilt online for actions related to oilcareer.com and governmentaljobs.com. Lemon admitted it took a while to get action against the websites - consumers first complained in late 1999 and a formal investigation began in Sept. 2000 - but said the bureau was happy with the result, since it was considered an important case.
"It's international, it affects Canada's relationships abroad, it was based on a (large) number of complaints we got, and (Hovila) was quite successful in his scam," he said. There's no estimate of how much money was obtained overall but consumers spent from $397US to as much as $1,197US in the hopes of getting a job. In an e-mail interview, Hovila said oilcareer.com is back online and now operating under a new business model. He said he's learned from his mistakes.
"As time went on we were experimenting with a number of ideas. Some of these ideas did cross the line as far as perhaps exaggerating the realm and scope of the service. We admit to that," Hovila said. "We did fall into the trap of engaging in some reviewable conduct and we were called to account for it. It was a good learning experience . . . and I'm just pleased that we were able to resolve the whole matter."
The new website already has more than 80 testimonials posted online, which Hovila insists are real. "For the new business model I figured out how to get testimonials and generated tons of them, and could generate tons more of authentic testimonials if I wanted to," he said.
"Also, those people were genuinely impressed with my members area as it is a helpful product," he said. Eight Canadian testimonials are posted online but none of the names have telephone listings and could not be contacted. Lemon said the new site has not been investigated. "As much as (the consent agreement) goes into force the very second that it is registered, I think it's also prudent to allow . . . some time to ensure they comply," he said.
"The conduct you see today is somewhat different, and quite frankly, we haven't received complaints regarding it and haven't made any determinations one way or another about the conduct that is ongoing now," he said. When asked about the number of new testimonials online he said they "make me raise an eyebrow."
"Should complaints and information come forward suggesting that the existing conduct is as egregious or is in some way in violation of the act, certainly we want to ensure these orders have some real meaning," he said. The bureau had the option of pursuing criminal or civil charges but went down the civil route because the evidence supported the case more.
Lemon said it also made it a more efficient way of going forward and getting the desired result. "We approached them to say, 'Look, we think we've got the goods on you, are you willing to entertain a negotiated settlement?' From my perspective, I'm spending taxpayers' dollars and to not (try) to work out a deal - which ends up getting us what we want - at much less cost and time, that's a win-win for the taxpayers," he said.
Hovila, who is the only person named in the consent agreement in relation to oilcareer.com and governmentaljobs.com, was also issued a 10-year court order to not reoffend, and could face criminal charges if he does so. While oilcareer.com is already taking new customers, governmentaljobs.com has a message online saying it will soon resume business. Most of the complaints received by the Competition Bureau were directed at oilcareer.com.