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How high school sports can be ripe for business scams

Lynn Shutts was recently thinking of ways to advertise her small Bonita Springs (Fla.) employer.

A 1997 Naples (Fla.) High School graduate, she began working for Mooove it Moving & Storage when it opened in 2014 and knew when it moved to its new location at Harmony Park Drive six months ago, she needed to get its name out to the public.

She didn’t have a lot of money to spend, maybe a couple hundred dollars here and there, so she had to pick her spots. Then she had an idea: What if the company supported Naples High and its athletics programs?

That’s when a serendipitous email from New Start Media, based in Davenport, Iowa, appeared in her inbox offering an opportunity to draw exposure from fans of Naples High through a small advertisement in a tri-fold sports fall schedule brochure.

“I thought it would be a good fit for us,” said Shutts, whose company has advertised with the Bonita Banner and the Collier Citizen. “I was super excited to get advertising from them, mostly because we’re a small company, and we thought it’d work out great.”

Within weeks, Shutts was working with New Start Media on the tri-fold, approving a round of proofs to make sure it was exactly right. She was told it would be published and available in a number of locations. At least three other local businesses were doing the same, including a Naples children’s store, Twinkle Twinkle, that paid $700 for a fall and winter brochure.

All she needed to do was pay $500.

Months went by, however, and Shutts didn’t see the schedule anywhere. Her email communications with the company were vague. At one point it changed its name, she said, to New Start Marketing, LLC. They eventually told her the schedule could be found at a local towing company, T & C Towing — which had also paid $399 for the same-sized advertisement.

It was then she felt duped. She eventually called Naples High athletic director Ernie Modugno to ask about the tri-folds. He was disappointed to tell her that he had no idea the company existed and it was not doing business on behalf of the high school.

“This thing, it runs in cycles,” Modugno said. “Somebody is doing it almost every year. They’re doing it around the country and probably making big bucks, but it’s at the expense of the schools.”

Another Southwest Florida business, Lamoraga, a Naples seafood and tapas restaurant, was contacted by a company from Texas — Sports Media — and asked to pay for products. They didn’t bite.

“We were approached by … scam artists,” said Thomas Nutten, the owner of Lamoraga. “We only received four to five invoices, which I think we ended up throwing out once we confirmed they were fake.”

It was after hearing about these cases that Modugno decided to write a letter to the media, imploring local businesses to keep an eye for fraudulent companies using high school names to sell advertising for “Local high school posters, calendars, stadium banners or magnetized team schedules.”

Modugno went a step further, suggested that affected businesses report the companies to the Better Business Bureau as well as the state’s attorney general.

Local schools with strong ties to the community, like Riverdale High School, say companies often come to them first when approached by unknown vendors.

“They’ll call us and say they haven’t heard of this business before,” Raiders athletic director Tom Roszell said. “We’ll tell them yay or nay whether they’re legit.”

“It’s difficult for those companies to come into our area,” Roszell added, “because over here we’re established. But in faster growing areas in Lee County, it could be more of a problem.”

New Start Marketing didn’t back down from the product. An office manager for the company, Mike Brussard, said Shutts was well aware of the product, as evidenced by the multiple rounds of proofs she accepted before its completion.

Shutts and T & C Towing employee Lisa Setanski maintain this is a scam that was orchestrated by phone, and the owner of Twinkle Twinkle, Cheryl Courson, said the representative even went as far as to say they were a member of the Naples High booster club. Brussard said his business would only send emails to prospective clients.

New Start Marketing has a “F” grade by the Better Business Bureau. The grade, which is the bureau’s lowest, represents its opinion of how the business is likely to interact with its customers and is based on information it’s able to obtain about the business, including complaints received from the public. There were nine complaints listed on the BBB’s website against New Start Marketing.

Brussard said every complaint listed on the bureau’s page has been resolved and wished Shutts had just gone to him first, saying “I’m sorry they didn’t see a return. If they would have contacted me first, we would have worked with them.”

Shutts simply wants to move on. When I called her again to ask about getting in touch with the company to resolve the differences, she said she’s already heard from them and they were being “overly aggressive to the point of harassment.”

It’s a lesson learned and a mistake, she said, she won’t fall for again.

Next time, she says, she’ll do more research and call local high schools first.

“We are still willing to advertise and get our name out there,” Shutts said. “We just don’t want to get burned again. We’ve done different advertising, but this is the only one who did it to us.”

At least when New Start Marketing contacted her again to advertise for a Naples High winter sports tri-fold, she had the wherewithal to say no.

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