Mount Pleasant merchant Shirley Kratz isn't one to sit back when confronted with a threat to her small business.
Consider her response a decade ago to the wave of national big-box chains that were pouring into town. The proprietor of Complements Tile & Ceramics formed a group for locally owned shops to promote their interests.
Now, Kratz is taking up a new cause even as she scales back her 22-year-old enterprise: sounding the alarm on questionable fee collectors that target business owners.
"More than anything, I don't want other people to be pushed around," she said last week. "I'm not scared of these people, but other people are."
Kratz has been bitten once before, when she got caught up in a leasing scam involving debit-card devices about 10 years ago.
"I didn't read the fine print," she acknowledged.
She pushed back in that case, eventually recouping $850 of the $1,200 she had paid to rent the electronic payment pad.
"It took a lot of effort just to do that," she recalled.
This time, Kratz is squaring off against a company with a familiar-sounding name that's trying to hit her up for exactly $599.99. Not a huge sum, but enough to get her attention.
The dispute between Kratz and an entity called Public Yellow Pages LLC that claims to be based in New York's famed Chrysler Building has been escalating since the fall.
It began not long after she asked AT&T Inc. in early October about canceling her advertisement in the Real Yellow Pages because she's closing her Johnnie Dodds Boulevard showroom, though she will continue to run her tile business online. It was too late, as the directory's new edition was already at the printer.
How Public Yellow Pages found out about that conversation is unknown, but Complements fielded its first call about a "cancellation fee" the week of Oct. 9.
"It's really curious to me," said Kratz, who happened to be out that week.
A store worker who picked up the phone declined at first to answer any questions. More high-pressure calls followed, and on Oct, 13 the employee gave in and agreed to be recorded "for quality control and training purposes," Kratz said.
The worker was instructed to limit all answers to "yes" or "no." Kratz, who has heard the tape, said the caller, identified as "Chanel," asked if the worker knew the cancellation would result in a $599.99 invoice. "Yes," was the response.
"She says she never said that,"
Kratz said of her staffer, who has since retired. "I think they doctored the recording."
The invoice didn't arrive until well past the right-of-rescission period. When it did, Kratz noticed a "walking-fingers" logo that was strikingly similar to that of the legitimate Real Yellow Pages. Thinking it came from AT&T, she called the phone giant to reach Chanel in the cancellation department. "We don't have anybody like that, and we don't have a cancellation department," she was told.
Public Yellow Pages, which has an "F" rating from the Better Business Bureau, did not respond to a request for comment last week. Postings about its billing tactics and its pattern of charging a $599.99 fee can be found on websites such as complaintwire.org.
Kratz is pursuing complaints with the Federal Trade Commission and the BBB in New York, where the company says it is based.
"I sent it a registered letter yesterday saying I had absolutely no intention of paying this," she said Thursday.
Public Yellow Pages hasn't let up. Kratz said it has threatened to turn the matter over to a collection agency and report Complements to credit bureaus. She's unconcerned, saying, "I'm not harassable.
"That doesn't affect me. I don't borrow money for my business, but some people do, so it's important that businesses instruct all employees to hang up if someone starts recording them on the phone," she said.
The dispute also is a reminder for business owners to know their creditors and to challenge any questionable bills and file a complaint if necessary.
"It never hurts to take two minutes to review an invoice that's coming in," said Chris Hadley, director of operations for the Columbia-based BBB of Central South Carolina and Charleston. "Businesses that are on top of their game are looking at everything coming in and going out. Or at least they should be."