Award scams: I won! Wait, what?

April 24, 2013

It’s pretty easy to recognize the 419 email scam, so called for the section of Nigerian criminal code related to fraud. An unsolicited email arrives from someone claiming to be a deported prince, a government employee, even a U.S. soldier who found Saddam Hussein’s gold. After an improbable sob story, the scammers promise millions of dollars in exchange for an advance-fee wire transfer. Um, no thanks.

While not as blatantly obvious, some award recognitions in the professional services world can rouse similar suspicions. But, oftentimes, such messages are not quite as easy to put in the trash. These emails address you by name and provide professional recognition in your exact field. Besides, awards can be a powerful tool for gaining recognition by your peers and prospects and you wouldn’t want to miss out on an opportunity to promote your business.

There are a growing number of schemers out there peddling bogus awards that would ultimately prove more embarrassing than flattering. Although much more sophisticated, they pander to the same combination of pride and ambition that are at the core of the 419 scams. They count on a professional’s ego creating an easily exploited blind spot.

So how do you determine if an honor is legit — and even if it is, whether you would want to be on this list in the first place? Here are a few tips to help you make a quick and informed decision on whether the honor is worth pursuing:

Who are the previous winners?

Check the organization’s website to see who the previous winners are and if they’re the type of company you would like to keep. This will also give you the opportunity to see how long the awards have been around. If you don’t recognize any of the names, this might not be for you. If previous winners are at the top of their field, however, the recognition could be worth considering. But take it a step farther. Poke around online to see if previous winners have referenced these awards on their bios or put out press releases. If so, it usually means they’re aware of the award and weren’t added to a list without their consent. It also means they likely found some value in promoting it.

Ask around

It may already be telling that you’ve never heard of the organization behind the award. After all, you’re the professional and the one with the insider’s glimpse into which recognitions matter in the eyes of your peers and prospects. But it never hurts to get a second opinion. Ask your colleagues, business partners or marketing professionals if they’ve heard of it. A shout down the hall or quick email could go a long way.

Google it

This simple step can be a big time-saver. Odds are you’re not the first person being notified of this award. And just as likely, you’re not the first person researching its validity. So use the work others have already put in. If Google ghosts the word “scam” before you’ve had a chance to finish typing the organization’s name in the search engine, it’s a good indicator that your research is done.

Give them a ring

Lastly, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and ask the organizations any and all questions you have. You want to be careful about how this award may affect your brand, and your questions are valid. If the organization is legitimate, they’ll be happy to answer them. It also gives you a chance to make sure there is a real person on the other end of the line.