By Carla Caldwell

Charley Brown

A new state law inspired by a Sandy Springs businesswoman takes aim at out-of-town businesses that take out listings in locally distributed phone directories, using names, addresses and telephone numbers that make them seem just down the road.

A bill signed into law on May 20 by Gov. Sonny Perdue makes it illegal for an out-of-area business to buy a listing in a local phone directory that includes a local or toll-free telephone number that routinely transfers callers to an out-of-area call center – unless the business’s real physical location is clearly stated.

Non-local businesses also are prohibited from using fake local addresses and fake names that misrepresent a company’s geographic location, such as using the name “Buckhead” or “Brookhaven” if the company is actually located somewhere else.

Charley Brown, CEO of Flowers of Sandy Springs, was livid when she discovered that an out-of-state company bought a listing that used her name in a telephone directory distributed in Sandy Springs. A toll-free number routed customers to a call center in New Jersey, she said.

Brown, who seven years ago bought the 22-year-old floral business where she had worked for nine years, said the listing not only siphoned off business and took advantage of her shop’s reputation; it fooled customers who thought they were calling her, or at least someone in Sandy Springs. While callers may have received flowers, they may not have gotten flowers her shop would have selected for customers, she said.

Brown said she called police, but they didn’t initially know how to classify her complaints on reports. Officers called supervisors and decided it was identity theft.

Brown said she called The Real White Pages, where listings were published, and was told there was nothing they could do even though her business is registered with the state and federally trademarked. A Real White Pages employee declined comment for this article and referred questions to an e-mail address for media queries. E-mails to the address were not returned as of publication deadline.

Eventually, Brown contacted Dist. 49 State Rep. Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs). Willard said he was bothered by the misleading listings and last year introduced a bill to stop them. The measure was held up in committee, but this year the legislation was sponsored and passed in the Senate. Willard said he’s pleased senators pushed the measure.

Willard said law comes down to an issue of fairness. By buying a line in a phone directory, individuals and companies could cause confusion and affect the livelihoods of local, legitimate business people, he said.

Now, Willard said, businesses can contact the Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs, which can refer to the law when working to resolve complaints.

Brown said she will watch for phone directory listings that violate the rules and will refer companies to the law when asking that they not use the information in future printings of directories. And, if necessary, Brown said, she can take legal steps.

Burt Kolker, who along with his wife, Susan, owns Sandy Springs Locksmith, a 45-year-old business on Hammond Drive, said he’s had problems similar to those experienced by Brown’s flower shop. Add to that, he said, more out-of-state companies are placing listings using business names that include Sandy Springs in the title, so that they appear to be physically located in the city.

Businesses get local and toll-free numbers, Kolker said, and route unsuspecting callers to call centers elsewhere. The call centers, he said, sometimes dispatch unscrupulous workers who charge more than originally estimated after the work is completed.

Kolker said he’s aware of devastated customers who have been followed to the bank to get cash because workers refused to take checks or credit cards.

Kolker advises people who call for a locksmith to listen to how the phone is answered. If the business says only “locksmith” rather than stating a full business name, chances are it’s a call center taking calls generated by numerous listings online and in directories all over the country, he said. It’s best, said Kolker, to locate a reputable locksmith, a plumber or other service providers, and keep the numbers handy rather than trying to locate someone in an emergency.

The Better Business Bureau began in 2007 sending out frequent warnings about locksmith call center scams, following a 75 percent increase in complaints from 2005 to 2006 to the bureau’s more than 100 locations across the country.

Kolker said he has spent tens of thousands of dollars to protect the name of his Sandy Springs’ business. He said he is pleased with the new law, but that more tools are needed to fight scammers.

“As long as somebody can post information online claiming to be located in a city, when they are actually elsewhere and unregulated, legitimate businesses will suffer,” said Kolker. “And, sadly, so will unsuspecting customers.”