HEADTEACHERS have been warned to beware of four companies that are invoicing schools for services that they have not asked for or do not need.
The warning has been issued by the National Anti-Fraud Network (NAFN), a UK-wide service funded by local authority subscriptions.
Two of the companies send unsolicited invoices for entries in trade directories. The third, a supplier of hygiene products, uses hard-sell techniques, and the fourth invoices parents for books on drugs which they are expected to donate to their schools.
This week, directors of another company, Fullerton Publishing, who sold advertising space in "crime prevention" booklets, are awaiting sentencing after being found guilty of conspiracy to defraud at Manchester Crown Court.
However, the problem for schools is that many of the practices that concern NAFN are not illegal. If schools mistakenly sign up, or give an order, they are tied in and owe the money. Schools are not covered by consumer laws that protect individuals.
Mark Astley, one of NAFN's two intelligence managers, says: "The organisations may be acting totally within the law, but sometimes their methods and literature may be misleading."
He gives the example of a letter from a directory firm which sets out the "customer's" entry, invites them to check if it is correct, then asks them to sign and return the form. "If you don't read the small print you don't realise that you've signed up for three years for about pound;2,000," said Mr Astley.
Andrew Ashworth, Manchester's deputy chief trading standards officer, says that sometimes the resulting invoice is for a smaller sum, perhaps pound;150. "The school may just pay this, putting it down to experience - and that is how the firm makes its living," he said.
Les Drury, head of Essex County Council's audit division and secretary of NAFN, sees this sort of thing regularly. "Schools and libraries seem to be favourite targets," he said. "The trade directories may or may not exist, but at the very least they are unlikely to be of much use to schools."
Earlier this year, Warberry C of E primary in Devon agreed to place a pound;250 advertisement in what claimed to be a charity publication. "Be very, very wary," Lynne Macrae, the head, was reported as saying at the time. "Only a tiny proportion of your sponsorship money goes to the charity.They make out the charity will get the lion's share, but they do not."
There are several things that schools can do to protect themselves. NAFN says that staff should be made aware that phone calls can be recorded and used to prove that someone has placed an order. Anyone dealing with a letter or an invoice should "read everything, but in particular the small print - and seek advice".
Every local authority school has a financial regulations handbook which makes it clear that any invoice should be carefully matched against a properly-signed order and a delivery of goods.
"No one should pay any bill unless they are absolutely certain that the goods have been received and are needed by the school," said Mr Drury.
National Anti-Fraud Network: Website: www.nafn.gov.uk; UK north office, tel: 0161 342 3480; UK South, tel: 01273 291322