Don’t let your guard down because of impressive show

Ours was a love that didn’t go beyond a day. Planet Antares, a California company, mailed an invitation to my home urging me to attend a “Home-Based Business and Franchise Conference” at a Fort Worth hotel.

I signed up by phone, even though I had no idea about the nature of the business involved. Received a ticket with my name on it, a conference badge with my name, and a business card with the word “Owner” next to my name and the company’s logo.

A day before the conference, Planet Antares sent flowers to my home (“Please accept this flower bouquet as my personal welcome”). Yes, indeed, I did feel welcome.

Planet Antares sent Dave Lieber flowers of welcome the night before he was kicked out of their hotel seminar.

The next day, in a conference room with 45 others at the Sheraton Fort Worth, I listened to a two-hour presentation. A half-hour into the presentation, I learned that the business opportunity involved buying a vending machine franchise and placing the machines — “Office Deli Refreshment Centers” — in office buildings.

When the presenter unveiled the gleaming silver machine, I was impressed enough to take out my camera and snap a photo.

The Office Deli Refreshmen Center

The man assigned as my “financial consultant” rushed over and asked me who I was. When I told him I write for the Star-Telegram and had been invited, he said, “Get your things.”

He walked me out the hotel front door and told the valet parking attendant that I was not allowed back in. If he saw me again, he said he would call the police.

Yes, our love was over before it began, especially after a lawyer sent me an e-mail with the subject line: “URGENT — PUBLICATION WARNING!”

For a long time, I’ve wanted to attend a hotel seminar where you get offered the business chance of a lifetime, but I wanted one where I was invited. Even though my stay ended prematurely, I learned about how we can research these businesses before investing.

The presenter said that Planet Antares is the “largest, most successful provider of business opportunities” in the U.S., Canada and Latin America, with more than a half-billion dollars in sales.

The company’s offer, she said, is “the best business opportunity in the world today.” She smiled and added, “It really is all about family.”

During her talk, the presenter gave fine-print clues that could point potential customers on where to research before making a final decision.

At one point, for example, she read a disclosure statement that the company had once paid a “$1 million regulatory penalty payment.”

“We were quite upset about that,” she said.

Another clue: When giving us names and phone numbers to call for referrals from satisfied customers, she said the clients were getting paid to be helpful in the phone calls. She also disclosed that no one related to the company is allowed to make projections about potential income or earnings.

Before making any investment, a first step is to carefully read the contract and share its contents with trusted advisers.

There was more information about the company in its contract. One lengthy paragraph disclosed that the company agreed to pay a total of $300,000 to former customers to settle lawsuits. But many large companies have had lawsuit settlements, so it may be hard to evaluate the significance of that information.

An Internet search may shed more light. The first site I checked, the Better Business Bureau, gives Planet Antares a B- rating with 40 complaints in the past three years. A summary said some distributors complained that the company misled them on the profit potential and the ability to place machines in profitable locations.

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Later, on the Federal Trade Commission website — — I found more information about the penalty the presenter mentioned. A 1996 news release disclosed that the $1 million penalty paid by the company, then known as Antares Corp., was used by the government to return money to some customers who had complained about the company’s tactics.

The 14-year-old fine, the FTC stated, was for “charges of misrepresenting, among other things, the potential earnings of prospective distributors and using shills as references.” The federal agency describes shills as phony references, where customers may not realize that they are paid to talk about the financial success.

I remembered that the presenter did disclose to the audience that the references were paid.

Planet Antares, based in Culver City, Calif., is owned by Dana Bashor. I wanted to talk with company representatives, so last week I requested an interview with Bashor. At first, I was told by a company staffer that the only person able to talk with me was a company sales manager, who would not be available until the next week.

Later, Doug Mirell, an attorney representing the company, contacted me to say that no one would talk with me because, he said, I was a trespasser and that the company would have no other comment.

While doing a general search for Planet Antares, I found something unexpected. The company has created many business-related blogs that offer positive advice. Of course, this also allows the company to dominate its search engine rankings with its own content.

Its blogs contain headlines such as “Improving Work Ethics in the Workplace” and “Planet Antares Scam Alert on Vending Machine Frauds.”

For example, one post states, “Planet Antares is providing tips and alerts to vending operators for safe vending. Follow them and stay away from scams for profitable vending business.”

Amid the company’s own postings, I found only two active consumer review websites with feedback about the company.

TrustLink Community, affiliated with the BBB, displays these recent comments from unnamed writers: “We are $28K in debt for two machines that are making nothing like the amount of money we were assured they would make,” one writes.

“My poor friend bought five of these machines, Only one of them after six months has been placed,” another writes.

A third: “After getting fed up, I wanted to return the machines, and they did not allow me to do so.”

On the same post, there were three other comments promoting the company’s position. Each was written in a similar style and ended with an upbeat statement:

“We just have to go out and find them and work to open them and enjoy every minute of it.”

“This business is the centerpiece around which our family has grown closer together.”

“For me, this is my mom’s retirement.”

On another consumer website — 800notes, Directory of Unknown Callers — posters track the company’s business conferences at various cities across the U.S. — from Pennsylvania to Florida, California, Alabama, Indiana, Hawaii and Texas.

In Fort Worth, as I was escorted out of the hotel that day, a Planet Antares employee who wouldn’t give his name explained: “We have to be careful. We’ve got competition. They’re out there for our information.”

As we should be, too, before making any investments.

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Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is available in hardcover, as a CD audio book, ebook and hey, what else do you need. Visit our store. Now revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber


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