What Are Toner Pirates, and How can You Avoid Them?

When you hear the phrase “toner pirates,” you may imagine a tall-masted ship sailing on a sea of inky-black toner, or perhaps petty thieves out to steal your precious office supplies. The truth, however, is much more down-to-earth — and a much more effective scam.

Simply put, toner pirates operate like any other scam artist: by preying on good people’s trusting nature, or taking advantage of an over-worked operations manager whose only priority is to end a phone call to proceed to the next task on their plate.

Like the merchant marines and navies of old, however, copier manufacturers and authorized dealers rage a constant war protecting their clients from this ever-present scam.

In this blog, you’ll find everything you need to know about toner pirates — from what they do, how to spot them, and how to avoid them.

HOW DO TONER PIRATES OPERATE?

While the pirates who once plagued trade routes of days long since passed, stealing treasures and shipments for their own, toner pirates operate in an opposite manner. Toner pirates supply your business with toner.

At face value, this might seem like these scam artists are doing you a favor — there’s nothing wrong with a little extra toner, right?

Like any scam, at face value, everything seems benign. But when the invoices start piling up, all that extra toner can become quite the burden. And when we say excess, we mean excess. Clients of ours in the past have reported finding literal pallets of toner shipped to their office, topped with an invoice costing thousands of dollars.

Other businesses, after looking through old expense reports, have discovered excessive amounts of money spent on toner in their annual budget. In one case, a client reported spending $25,000 on toner, across thirty different invoices, each from a different company.

It’s a simple scam — find a business that uses a copier, contact the operations or office manager, convince the employee they need more toner, and then bam. It’s only after being saddled with a thousand dollar invoice does the company realize something is amiss.

HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU’RE DEALING WITH A TONER PIRATE?

There is a general pattern all wide-spread scams must follow: they all start by asking questions. Email scams alert you to an attempted hack on your account, and will ask that you change your password. Toner pirates will start by asking for your equipment ID number.

This isn’t to say that every time a service provider asks for an equipment ID number that you are being scammed; but in 99% of cases, a reputable service provider will never ask for an equipment ID before anything else.

Phrases such as the ones listed below are tell-tale signs of a black-hearted toner pirate:

  • - “Hi, this is Bob from Office Products ABC, I need your copier’s ID number so I can send you replacement toner.”
  • - “I need to verify your equipment ID, can you read it out for me?”
  • - “We noticed you haven’t ordered toner in a while, is it okay if we send you some? All we need is your copier’s ID number.”

Notice the pattern?

If it is indeed your actual service provider, they should be the party announcing your copier’s equipment ID. Your service provider keeps close tabs on your copier’s toner levels by measuring the number of clicks your copier produces, and if your service agreement stipulates it, will automatically provide you with toner when your levels approach a low threshold.

HOW DO YOU AVOID A TONER PIRATE?

Unfortunately, like the ubiquity of robocalls and telemarketers, toner pirates will always be on the hunt for their next mark. It’s next to impossible to avoid interacting with one. If you are ever in doubt when speaking to someone on the phone, hang up, and call your service provider directly — that way, you can be sure you’re speaking to a reputable party.

On the bright side, even if you do receive a shipment of pirate toner, it will be easy to spot. Simply look at the company listed on the shipment’s invoice: if it doesn’t match your usual provider, don’t pay it.

Like any scam, you aren’t liable to pay. So, while the toner may not actually work with your actual copier, you needn’t pay the bill.

This, of course, requires constant vigilance — and all it takes is one rushed day in your accounting department for a toner pirate invoice to slip through.

The best way to avoid toner pirates is to always use a copier that is less than five years old. Toner, surprisingly, is a highly protected and controlled office product. The only sellers of toner cartridges for new copiers are the manufacturers themselves, and authorized re-sellers like your current service provider.

By always staying up-to-date with the newest copier models, you’ll never have to worry about toner pirates again.

Want to learn more about social engineering and how scams work? Check out our past Coffee with Cobb, Security Series: Social Engineering.

Fred Harlan
Fred is a business improvement specialist with over 14 years of imaging industry experience, all with Cobb Technologies. When Fred isn't helping business reduce their expenses and boost their productivity via office hardware and software solutions, he's woodcrafting, fishing, or spending time with his friends and family.