The owner of an organic clothing store got the surprise of her life when she got a summons in a $20 million lawsuit against her last month. Early this year, Leslie Richards was contacted by Vision Media Television about a documentary they were supposedly producing. They wanted to include her and her clothing store in a segment on eco fashion.

It all sounded great until Vision Media asked for almost $26,000 to cover production fees and travel costs for filming. When Leslie balked, she was told she was getting quite a bargain for the amount of exposure they'd provide.

Leslie decided to do her homework on the company, and quickly posted information on her blog in a piece entitled "Scam Taking Advantage of Green Businesses." She detailed the name-dropping done in the sales pitch, and statements about being affiliated with "Public TV."
The catch is that they're not affiliated with PBS or CNN, two of the names that seem to pop up in connection with Vision Media. PBS has even gone so far as to disclaim any affiliation with Vision Media on their site, indicating that this "confusion" must have occurred several times in the past.

A number of businesses have contacted PBS to ask us about our relationship with the producers of various television programs carrying titles such as Giving Back, Learning About, and The National Report Series. According to representatives of these businesses, the producers have offered to feature the representatives' businesses in a television program and indicated that the program will be made available on national public television. Based upon representations made to them by the producers, the businesses were led to believe that the producers were associated with PBS and that PBS intended to distribute or otherwise endorsed their programming.

PBS wishes to clarify that it is not associated with and does not endorse, distribute programming for, review underwriting for or otherwise have any business relationship with the following production companies: VM Television, Vision Media Television, Paradigm Media Group, PMG, PMGTV, Infinity Media Group, Roadshow Productions, Family Television Studios, United Media Communications Group, American Review TV, Business Break TV, Event Media TV, or Global Television Studios. PBS does not oversee the production or distribution of any programs associated with any of these companies.

Leslie's posting on her blog was followed shortly with threatening letters and phone calls from the company. (I've found that when companies try to squelch the voice of bloggers, there's often something they're hiding.) The blogger details more about her situation and the lawsuit in another blog post.

The New York Times recently reported on Vision Media Television and another person who had a run-in with their sales pitch and demand for over $20,000 in fees related to the filming. Bloggers and other media outlets are picking up on Leslie's story too.

Buyer beware: Production companies that are legitimately producing documentaries and news programs do not ask you to pay fees. That's "pay to play," and it's rarely a good idea, especially for a small business owner. The cost usually outweighs any benefit. Think of it this way: If the programs were profitable and sought-after by the viewing public, there would be no need for the participants to foot the bill.

I'm crossing my fingers for Leslie and the rest of blogland. Bloggers should not be bullied into not posting their opinions, and that includes calling things scams. Coming to the conclusion that a program or company is a scam is a perfectly legitimate opinion, and bloggers should be free to express that without fear of retaliation from a company with deeper pockets.

Tracy L. Coenen, CPA, MBA, CFE performs fraud examinations and financial investigations for her company Sequence Inc. Forensic Accounting, and is the author of Essentials of Corporate Fraud.

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