EU TRADEMARK SWINDLE
This is a horror story with a happy ending. It’s a story about dubious marketing practices and fully fledged scams. Be prepared: in this article we will name names, in order to expose what we think is a quick cash-grabbing scheme.
REGISTERING A EUROPEAN TRADEMARK
This story starts with our friend, Lorenzo Guerra, founder and CEO of the start-up Italent, an e-commerce platform born to bring the best Italian food products to an international audience. Lorenzo wanted to trademark his company’s logo and started the process on the website of the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO).
Luckily, these kinds of bureaucratic endeavours are now incredibly easy to execute and, in many circumstances, can be carried out without the expensive involvement of specialised professionals. The ticket price is relatively low: you can register your European trade mark for as little as 850€.
That’s exactly what Lorenzo did, he went on EUIPO’s website and registered Italent’s trademark.
He chose three classes:
29 – foodstuffs of animal origin;
30 – foodstuffs of plant origin;
33 – alcoholic beverages.
He processed his application and paid the corresponding fee for the three classes for a total of 1,050€. All done and dusted, he just had to wait for the application to be examined, published and then registered.
This is when things got a little bit more interesting for Lorenzo.
For those of you who have never applied for a trademark themselves, after completing your application and the publication, others have 3 months to oppose your suggested trade mark.
Unilever (yes, that Unilever!) got in contact with him and, in a very polite and professional way, discussed a small overlap in one of the classes he was applying for – it turns out Unilever has a brand called “Talenti” and we guess you can understand that this sounds quite similar… To be clear the opposition wasn’t a formal one: the two businesses resolved the situation in a highly professional manner without having to get any other third party involved.
That said, this was an extra step that does not happen every day, and it could have created more confusion, if it wasn’t for Lorenzo’s cool head.
A NEW INVOICE
After having solved the small hiccup with Unilever, Lorenzo thought that everything was ok and he was awaiting the final registration of his trademark, but he instead received a new invoice with a registration fee of 2198.90€ !
He could not believe his eyes when he received it:
A letter, in an envelope; not just the typical scammy email then, but a properly printed letter with all the required information to make it sound like a legitimate invoice from an official IP office. The letter came from the IPRO Intellectual Property Registration Office, on a letterhead with a convincing logo and a name that reminds of official institutions. The problem is that this is not an IP registration office, but just a company that is named “Intellectual Property Registration Office”.
This “business” is incorporated in Budapest, and has quite a laughable website (we obviously encourage you to check the link, in the hope that they will rank higher and higher in search engines and make this farce even more visible).
This piece of paper is very convincing, and even with a lower “converting rate”, the grifters that set up this fraudulent endeavour may end up with a sizeable business, if they play with big enough numbers.
It looks like they were very careful to phrase this so that it couldn’t be argued, in court, that this adds up to a scam. Especially when considering, at the bottom of the page, the sentence EUIPO – EUROPEAN UNION INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY OFFICE, preceded by the wording (in small caps) data publication from.
IT’S ALL IN THE FINEPRINT
But let’s take a deeper look at the letter and particularly to the fineprint at the end. Here is the text in its entirety:
Above lists the reproduction of your Community Trade Mark, Application Filing Date, Application Filing Number and Date of Publication. Your Community Trade Mark application has been submitted to the European Union Intellectual Property Office to be taken under legal protection on the territory of the Member States of the European Union. We also refer to our General Terms and Conditions on our website www.ipro-service.com. The publication is no affiliate with the official Community Trade Mark publication of a government entity. This is not an invoice. This is an offer. You are under no obligation to pay this amount, unless you accept this offer. The contract period starts, when your payment has been received. Entity is valid for one year. The contract will be automatically renewed, if you not terminate the contract three month prior to the contract expiration. Office addresses: European Office/International Office: IPRO-Intellectual Property Registration Office-Boulevard du Jardin Botanique 10 – 1000 Bruxelles-Belgium.
No matter the wording, and the grammar mistakes, we have to call this for what it is:
But let’s indulge ourselves and try to consider this as a legitimate “business offer”… Which services are they offering exactly? The services they would like to invoice for are already taken care of.
What is this “registration fee”? Why should anybody pay for a registration fee they’ve already paid, especially for a service they’ve already applied for? The letter clearly states the Application Filing Number with the real IP Office, so which additional services are they offering here?
None, this is a scam. You don’t have to pay for anything.
There is no additional payment for your trademark application. There is no second or extra fee.
These fraudsters aren’t offering anything: there are no services to be rendered here. This attempt clearly plays on the confusion that sometimes clouds our judgement when dealing with complicated and bureaucratic procedures.
Luckily, as already mentioned, this story has a happy ending. Lorenzo did not pay the money stated on the letter, he reacted very swiftly by doing the correct thing.
He told us:
“At first I was angry and upset with the European Union IP Office: they told me I had to pay only once, and now they were sending a second invoice. But after a few moments I realised this could very well be a fraud. There was something amiss, so I decided to pick up the phone and call EUIPO’s central office in Spain and they promptly confirmed that I didn’t have to pay any additional fee.”
The EUIPO states very clearly on their official website “If you receive an invoice requesting payment from a company that sounds like us – don’t pay! Always check first.” Unfortunately, we can only assume that this has not been an isolated case…
HOW TO AVOID BEING SCAMMED
How can you avoid such frauds? One of the ways is to react like Lorenzo did: he challenged what he perceived as an unfair, additional and uncalled-for payment. We are very happy for him, but it seems that not everyone might be as savvy or lucky.
There are pages and pages of similar invoices on the EUIPO’s website.
Some have almost identical templates, but they come from different entities, in different countries. This is from the EOIP – European Organisation Intellectual Property, a company with its headquarters in Tirana, but with an almost identical website and modus operandi:
CHALLENGE, CHECK AND GO TO THE SOURCE
Be skeptical about unsolicited invoices, challenge whether you should pay and always confirm with the legitimate organisation you are dealing with.
We would like to paste here the number of the real European Union Intellectual Property Office, to make it easier for you to check on these IP scams, but the real takeaway here is: google it yourself!
Don’t call or reply to numbers, emails or addresses that come with unsolicited requests for money: chances are you might be replying to the scammers themselves.
EUIPO never sends invoices or letters requesting direct payment for services to its users!
REPORTING THESE BEHAVIOURS IS IMPORTANT
So, what can be done to help others? It’s important to talk about these pitfalls and help others avoid being scammed. A big Thank You to Lorenzo and Italent, for having shared this horror story with us. We hope you read this story and will be prepared in case you are ending up in the same situation.
At Matters2, we aim to give as much visibility as possible to these issues and we are always open to discuss your situation. Do you have any experience to share that might help other founders and business owners? Reach out to us and share your story in order to save others from making costly mistakes.