Whether you’re a business owner or an employee, I think everyone is watching the pennies and the pounds (sorry, cents and euros) these days. And given the amount of both small and larger businesses in Waterford that have permanently closed their doors in the past twelve months, it’s little wonder that we’re all increasingly trying to support our own.

Well, one local hairdresser has gone a step further and contacted me this week because he wanted to watch the backs of other business owners in the city. Ultan Brady, of the well-known Ultan’s Hair Salon on Stephen’s Street, asked me to highlight a scheme which had the prospects to dupe him out of almost €1,000 and he doesn’t want anyone else to be caught unawares.

Ultan believes literally hundreds of businesses in Waterford have been contacted in recent weeks by the European City Guide, with a form urging them to update their details for their free CD Rom directory listings. The CD Rom claims to contain listings of businesses in European cities and the apparently simple form asks the business owner to check their contact details are correct and then sign and return the form to a Spanish address ‘even if you do not wish to place an order’. Ultan believes many businesses do as requested without a second thought but therein lies the problem.

Once this form is returned, the business owner is liable for a bill of €997 (details of which tend to be hidden in the small print). If you have already signed said form, brace yourself to be bombarded with invoices and solicitors’ letters, threatening legal action if you fail to pay. Eventually, you’ll hear from a debt collection agency. Lovely stuff.

The company, which used to operate from Barcelona, was fined €300,000 in 2002 for misleading advertising and banned from operating for a year. The Catalan authorities received more than 3,500 complaints from all over Europe between 1999 and 2003. The guide then moved to Valencia, which is in a different province, and started business again.

Ultan himself initially signed the form and it took no little amount of consternation and upset before he eventually got the message across that he was not interested in paying to be listed on the Guide. And now he’s on a mission let as many other businesses as possible know about his experience.

On further research, I discovered that the European City Guide has been doing the rounds for some time now and, apparently, countless businesses and arts organisations around Europe have unwittingly signed up to its listings. They go on to find out that cancellation is forbidden and many pay the fee thinking it will ultimately be cheaper than getting themselves out of a legal quandary.

If you have already signed the form, you should note that Irish law obliges directories to print the date of publication of the directory and the price of the directory on all order forms. ECG’s forms contain none of this information. It is understood that ECG has not taken any company to court here, though several Irish businesses are understood to have paid ECG after it threatened legal action against them. One man, a barber based in Naas, Co Kildare, even contacted gardai after he allegedly received a death threat from a debt collection agency acting for the European City Guide.

Businesses have now set up a website at www.stopecg.org to highlight the methods of the European City Guide so if you have already signed up to the listing it’s worth taking a gander at this.

Other than that, the advice is simple, if you receive one of these forms, chuck it in the bin pronto.