Local PBS station warns of potential scam

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It starts with a convincing sales pitch from a so-called production company fishing for clients, claiming that it can produce informational segments about them that would appear on public television.

Boca Raton, Fla.-based Vision Media Television has a sleek looking website and currently is using the name of television personality Joan Lunden to lend credibility to its operations. Several Indianapolis not-for-profits have been contacted by the company. One says it tried to close the deal by asking for an upfront fee as high as $26,000 to cover production costs.

However, local public broadcasting officials are warning Indianapolis organizations and corporate partners that the pitch may be a scam. They say that WFYI, which operates public radio and television stations WFYI-FM 90.1 and WFYI-TV Channel 20 in Indianapolis, has no business relationship with the producer and does not broadcast any of its content.

WFYI also points out that Lunden has recently posted a warning on her website about production companies falsely using her name in connection with segments and programs allegedly for air on public television. In addition, the Public Broadcasting Service warned viewers in 2008 that it had no association with a number of production companies, including Vision Media.

The unusual financial solicitation and the quick one-week window to send a $26,000 payment raised a red flag for Sally Irvin, executive director of the Indiana Canine Assistant Network on the city’s west side.

The 10-year-old not-for-profit provides assistance dogs to children and adults suffering from cerebral palsy and other conditions.

Initially contacted by Vision Media on Feb. 14, Irvin ended conversations with the company, operating as American Milestones with Joan Lunden, on Monday after concluding the pitch is a scam.

“The scary part to me is that it wasn’t a hard sell,” she said. “If it wasn’t for the horrible amount of money, it sounded very legitimate to me.”

WFYI has contacted community partners and corporate supporters with warnings about the solicitation. A spokesperson said that several local groups have told WFYI that they've been contacted by Vision Media, including the American Legion, Indiana State Museum and IndyGo. WFYI is unaware of any local not-for-profit or company that has actually paid American Milestones for production work it claims to offer.

Calls to the Florida company from IBJ were not returned.

WFYI typically works with several independent producers that provide content, said Alan Cloe, the station’s executive vice president for content services. But the broadcaster does not work with American Milestones, Cloe said, and he’s wary of its intentions.

“It’s reminiscent of somebody who says they’re compiling a directory of important people, and shouldn’t you pay for your listing,” he said.

A warning advisory posted on the website of Joan Lunden Productions says she’s aware of entities that have been using her name without consent when soliciting for public relations videos, commercials and paid-for news segments.

Lunden said she thinks the use of her name may stem from her participation in 2008 in the filming of generic “openings and closings” for what she was told would be educational television segments. The pieces touched on topics such as medicine, law and business and were to be distributed to public television stations.

American Milestones undoubtedly is using Lunden’s name to give the company a sense of credibility, said Bill Thomas, CEO of the Central Indiana Better Business Bureau. The local consumer rights agency hasn’t logged any complaints against the company, he said.

“It’s just like we tell consumers, you’ve got to be vigilant,” Thomas said. “Don’t let these claims of great exposure distract you from what is probably the truth.”

It’s unclear which cities American Milestones is targeting, but an online thread on the website 800notes.com suggests a few have fallen victim to the solicitation.

“Sadly we bit and are now trying to get our money back, well at least some of it,” said one post from November, citing a complaint filed with the Florida attorney general. “I doubt it will happen or that we will have much recourse.”

American Milestones’ parent Vision Media has used the name of at least one other television personality in the past to coax money from community foundations.

In 2008, company representatives called leaders of such organizations with an offer to be part of a television program with Hugh Downs, the retired broadcaster, as its host, according to The New York Times. But the initial pitch did not mention that the production would cost $20,000 or more.

At the time PBS had a warning on its website that said it “is not associated with and does not endorse, distribute programming for, review underwriting for or otherwise have any business relationship” with a list of production companies that included Vision Media, the newspaper said.

Meanwhile, Irvin at the Indiana Canine Assistant Network is thankful she didn’t continue to pursue the pitch from Vision Media. The small not-for-profit’s annual budget is just $291,000, and prying $26,000 away from directors would have been nearly impossible anyway.

Irvin became even more suspicious when she asked for a copy of the contract, which she never received, in addition to her ignored requests to speak to other not-for-profits that Vision Media had worked with.

“I can be pretty skeptical, and when I got the first message, it sounded very professional,” Irvin said. “But when she said there would be a cost for production, I’m thinking, ‘We’re not paying for this.’”

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