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Common Trademark Scams – How to Spot and Avoid

—Daniel M. Levine

Applicants of recently filed trademarks often receive hard copy letters and e-mails from entities purporting to be the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”), under color of the USPTO, or as another government entity. Part of why these deceptions are prevalent and sometimes convincing is the databases of the USPTO are largely public and are easily searchable, making it easy to populate template and form letters. Scammers have immediate access to information about your company (its address, state of incorporation, telephone number, signatory name and positions) and the mark itself (goods/services, filing dates, application numbers, if connected to foreign registrations).

What is the scam?
Currently, the most pervasive and popular scheme states that money is due before the trademark can officially register and implies that those fees are going directly to the government. However, the language in the fine print discloses the fees being charged are actually for publication/registration in the company’s own database or periodical. In other words, the payment ends up in the scammer’s pocket and nothing is due or paid to the USPTO. Another variation sometimes quotes the fee as for registration in its trademark watch service. The United States does not require a ‘Registration’ fee for trademarks and neither of these services is a requirement for the registration or maintenance of a trademark.

How do the letters look convincing as real?
Spotting these fake letters can be difficult due to the combination of several tactics:

  • Use of names similar, but not necessarily identical to, the United States Patent and Trademark Office
  • Actual data points and truthful information highlighted and used alongside of the deception
  • Inclusion of bar codes, QR codes, and invoice and reference numbers
  • Use of potentially non-public knowledge, such as a signatory’s name and position

Easy Ways to Likely Spot a Spoof Letter
So, the question is, how can I know if a letter is a scam or not? Fortunately, there are a few dead giveaways:

  • The inclusion of ANY foreign addresses or telephone numbers
    While the address at the top may be in the United States, the banking information or telephone number to call may be foreign. Keep an eye out for telephone numbers starting with a leading zero. For example:
  1. The use of dd/mm/yy (or dd.mm.yy) date formats
  2. The use of a comma instead of a period in number formats
  3. The use of European spellings such as “cheque”
  4. E-mail addresses not ending in USPTO.GOV

However, the best way to positively spot a fake letter is to know who is registered as the correspondent with the USPTO. ALL OFFICIAL COMMUNICATIONS FROM THE USPTO WILL GO TO THE PARTY IDENTIFIED AS THE CORRESPONDENT IN THE TRADEMARK APPLICATION (OR SUBSEQUENT FILINGS).

If an attorney filed the application the correspondent will almost always be the attorney. A letter sent to the owner of the application, but not the correspondent, is almost certain to be a scam. Thus, if an attorney filed your application any correspondence you receive is very likely to be a fake.

The information in this article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute formal, legal advice.  Consult with one of the attorneys from Roberts McGivney Zagotta LLC for advice about your particular circumstance.