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It's not yours, but would you pay this bill?

Sandra Volpe of Largo was surprised when she received three notices from a collection agency in May for money owed to Edward White Hospital.

Volpe, a 40-year-old executive with Raymond James & Associates, was sure she'd never even been to the St. Petersburg hospital.

So she called NCO Financial Systems Inc., which claimed she owed $2,362.26 for services at Ed White. When she told them the last four digits of her Social Security number, they agreed it wasn't her bill and told her to forget about it.

But Volpe's husband, Joe, wanted to know how NCO had gotten his wife's name in the first place. Talking to a supervisor and then a manager in NCO's Tampa office, he said he was told the agency sends bills to all individuals with the same name in an area, hoping to catch the real debtor by casting a wide net.

"They said they use an Internet service and the property appraiser's records to find people with the same name," Joe Volpe said. "And our name is not even that common."

Diane Stoddard, the supervisor in NCO's Tampa office, denied that the company uses such a scattershot approach and blamed the mistake on an erroneous credit bureau report that had Volpe's address.

"If we did that routinely, we would not be a multimillion-dollar company," she said. "That's against federal regulations."

Though the Volpes would like a letter from NCO acknowledging they are not responsible for the Ed White bill, Stoddard said her company won't provide one.

"We can't send any letter other than to the people who owe the bill," she said.

But Sandra Volpe wonders how often people with really common names get such erroneous dunning notices and simply pay up.

"What if you're an old person who was intimidated and confused and paid it anyway?" she asked. "I don't understand how they can get away with this."

_ KRIS HUNDLEY

Chipping in to fill chamber with minorities

Tampa Electric Co. and Bank of America want to lure more women- and minority-owned businesses to the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. So they each are chipping in $10,000 to the chamber, enough to cover one year's worth of dues, or $385, for 52 small businesses.

Today, only about 10 percent of its 2,368 members are businesses owned by women and minorities, according to Gloria Anthony, the chamber's vice president of work force and community development.

Ten years ago, Anthony said, the chamber felt lucky to have 10 minority- or women-owned businesses. As pillars of the mostly white, mostly male business establishment, chambers traditionally were not seen as organizations welcoming women and minority owners.

But that changed in the 1990s, Anthony said. In fact, most of the Tampa chamber's growth in women- and minority-owned businesses has occurred in the past three or four years, she said.

The corporate grants will be used for businesses with 15 employees or fewer. The annual membership fee provides for two employees to represent the company. Each additional employee will cost $5 for the year. The offer is first-come, first-served.

And yes, there's a catch. Entrepreneurs must be based in Hillsborough County and sign a two-year membership contract, which means they will have to foot the bill the second year.

_ J. NEALY-BROWN

Controversial billboard turns out to be a bust

SolSource Inc. of Clearwater has pulled its controversial billboard ads, which featured a buxom model and the phrase "System down? We can get I.T. up."

But was the decision a matter of conscience or cash flow?

Before hiring Teasdale Enterprises of Arts and Media to prepare a marketing campaign last year, SolSource was an a little-known company in the unglamorous business of designing computer networks, laying cable and building disaster-ready data centers. The racy ads made it a household name, at least among techies.

"When I meet people, 90 percent of them have heard of my company," president Brian Harris raved in March.

Now Harris says he's had a change of heart. The e-mails from feminists and others offended by the billboards have worn him down, he says. So has the ad campaign's cost. Worst of all, he says, "it didn't drive any business."

But Malcolm Teasdale, chief executive of the ad agency, says SolSource got "lots of business" from the ads. He says the real reason SolSource dropped the campaign is because the company could no longer afford it. Teasdale is suing to recover debts he estimated at more than $100,000.

Perhaps the winner of the case will proclaim his victory on a billboard.

_ SCOTT BARANCIK

Bank of America bumped down on list

This would never happen on Hugh McColl's watch.

Bank of America, the Charlotte, N.C., megabank created by merger-driven McColl, fell a few notches on the list of the world's biggest banks.

According to data from Thomson Financial/Worldscope, BofA is now the eighth-largest bank in the world, down from fifth a year ago. Assets of the bank, which is the largest in Florida, rose an anemic 1.5 percent to $642-billion.

By comparison, the two other American banks on the list, Citigroup (No. 1) and J.P. Morgan Chase (No. 4), surged in assets by 26 percent and 76 percent, respectively. Citigroup's aggressiveness helped it overtake Deutsche Bank for the top spot while the merger of Chase Manhattan and J.P. Morgan catapulted the resulting company into the upper ranks.

Still, the slip in Bank of America's stature wasn't too shocking. After McColl retired this year, new CEO Ken Lewis made clear that buying more banks is out and a focus on operations is in.

Still, one wonders if McColl isn't wincing somewhere ...

_ JEFF HARRINGTON

A Southern drink with a marketing twist

The martini craze lifted some of the lingering social stigma over liquor and spirits. Now the folks who make Southern Comfort figure the mood is right for their first liqueur marketed exclusively to women.

Brown-Forman Corp. of Louisville, Ky., concentrated on women for its new Southern Twist because 85 percent of its Southern Comfort brand is consumed by men.

The Tampa Bay area joins Austin, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; and Denver as a test market because of the area's demographics and nightlife scene for women ages 21 to 39.

Backed by a $1.5-million ad campaign, more than 500 local bars and restaurants agreed to stock Southern Twist. They've priced it by the glass like wine. Liquor stores want $12.99 a bottle.

Most women drinkers prefer wine or beer or even malt liquors such as Zima rather than mixing their own drinks at home. Southern Twist, which has 15 percent alcohol, is stone fruit liqueur, meaning it's made from fruit that has pits.

"There really isn't a women's product in the category," said Carrie Kleban, director of new products for Brown-Forman, which tested 30 combinations of fruits for Southern Twist before settling on a peach and plum blend with a hint of natural citrus flavor. "Our research found it was important the drink be clear like vodka and have no taste of alcohol."

Southern Comfort gave up on its last attempt to tap the women's market eight years ago after too many women mistook its Crystal Comfort for a wine cooler.

_ MARK ALBRIGHT

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