Who is Ridgebound.com? SNEWSÂ® was asked this question by a number of manufacturers several weeks ago as much out of frustration as anything else. We were told that this etail website was selling top brands â€“ Gregory, Jetboil, Sierra Designs, Marmot, CamelBak, Kelty, Granite Gear, GoLite, Montrail, Big Agnes, Coleman and more -- and yet it was not an authorized dealer of any. Worse, the company not only had a website of its own, but it was also selling on Ebay and was moving quite a bit of product by the look of it.
At the request of the industry, the SNEWSÂ® team, backed by an army of friends and inside contacts across the country, rolled up its sleeves and began doing what we do best â€“ investigating to get at the truth behind Ridgebound.com (a.k.a. Ridge Bound). The twists and turns had our heads spinning, and what we found was surprising: Encio Outdoors â€“ a company the industry thought was legitimate â€“ and Ridge Bound appear to be one in the same. Oh, and don't forget about the orphanages in India, which are also a part of the story. Read on for what we know at this point.
SNEWSÂ® Fact: Dun & Bradstreet lists "Ridge Bound Inc." as a Georgia-based company with an address at 3338 Country Club Road, Ste. A, Valdosta, GA 31605.
What we found: This is the same address that Ridge Bound lists as its physical address on the company website. Trouble is, our sources went to the address and discovered that it was simply an outlet of The UPS Store in a mall. We did confirm that Ridge Bound had a mailbox and an account there by contacting the store, and that the company received shipments and mail at the address. However, a staff member told us that incoming mail and packages were not necessarily picked up physically and the staff member indicated the store was forwarding to another location. He could not tell us where or additional detail without a court subpoena.
SNEWSÂ® Fact: Ridge Bound lists itself as an incorporated company (Ridge Bound Inc.) in Dun & Bradstreet listings.
What we found: Ridge Bound is, as far as we can tell, not an incorporated company. Searches of corporate databases, including those in Delaware, turned up no LLC or corporation registration for any of the names or spellings it has been known to use --Ridge Bound, Ridgebound, or Ridgebound.com.
SNEWSÂ® Fact: D&B lists Cary Christian as the owner of the company and also provides Christian's phone number â€“ 352-262-7930.
What we found: Our investigators learned that this is a Verizon mobile phone number with an account based in Gainesville, Fla.
SNEWSÂ® Fact: Ridge Bound displays logos both for BizRate.com's customer certified program as well as for the Better Business Bureau online reliability program.
What we found: BizRate officials confirmed that the use of the company's logo on Ridge Bound was fraudulent and told SNEWSÂ® the company was launching an investigation. Officials at the BBB also noted that the use of its logo was fraudulent, and told SNEWSÂ® its legal department was also going to launch an investigation.
SNEWSÂ® Fact: Ridge Bound became an eBay member and seller on Jan. 13, 2005. From Jan. 13 to Oct. 25 â€“ the date of the company's last sale on eBay -- it registered 895 customer feedback sales.
What we found: The company disappeared from eBay during our investigation, with its presence coming down on Oct. 26. However, as of Oct. 30, click here to go to the customer feedback site on eBay that continues to be active. Note that buyers continue to post recognition of shipped goods they have received as of Oct. 30. Note also that the negative posts are starting to become more common.
SNEWSÂ® Fact: In an Oct. 28 email via the company email (email@example.com) responding to a manufacturer inquiring about Ridge Bound activities, the company claims it is not actually selling. Responding to an inquiry from the manufacturer about the site's legitimacy and what it is selling, as well as how it gets the images, information and products it currently displays, Ridge Bound customer service stated: "We have not sold a single product of yours or anyone's by any retail means. Our website has not taken a single order, ever. As for eBay auctions, I can go to the store and buy your products and then list them on eBay. I'm not sure why the product information is an issue. You list product information on your website, as do many online retailers. The 'information' is public domain."
What we found: Perhaps we're missing something. First, eBay sales don't count as selling? Second, while we do understand public domain claims, Ridgebound.com blatantly displays company logos, which are, in most cases, registered trademarks and since the company does not have permission to display those, it is in violation of trademark laws.
In addition, Rock Creek Outdoors has informed SNEWSÂ® that numerous images and also specific html coding have been repurposed from Rock Creek's website for use on Ridge Bound's site. This is a violation of copyright.
SNEWSÂ® Fact: We called the toll free 800 number for Ridgebound.com customer service numerous times, posing as buyers seeking to return product, prospective buyers inquiring about product and, finally, as ourselves â€“ SNEWSÂ® investigative journalists.
What we found: What we learned over the course of those calls is that the call center answering the number, 800-434-0323, is located in Saskatchewan, Canada. They began taking calls for Ridge Bound in late 2004. The address for handling returns that the call center gives is 373 Tomahawk Dr, Maumee, OH 43537.
Two call center customer service reps, as well as a supervisor with whom we spoke, confirmed that instructions from Ridge Bound are as follows: The rep is to take the customer's contact information and requested product order, but is to also inform the customer that since the company is still setting up logistics and may be out of stock on an item, that the call center will be forwarding the order directly to the company and that a company representative would be in contact shortly. The call center also told us that it currently handles call center duties for over 2,000 U.S.-based companies. When we asked the supervisor for contact information for the owners of Ridge Bound, we were told that they didn't have that information. We were told the only email Ridge Bound had was a generic company one that gave no name or other way to know who was receiving it.
SNEWSÂ® Fact: Now, what about Encio Outdoors? In late 2004, Eric Stockton, owner of Encio Outdoors, visited an EORA show and subsequently hooked up with several ROI retailers, one of them Rock Creek Outfitters.
What we found: Stockton claimed that he was a government subcontractor and began emailing with Rock Creek. Stockton's stated goal was to find a supplier and fulfillment retailer for government orders for a government website. This site was for the use of military employees. Rock Creek was told that in order to research Rock Creek and get a better idea of the kinds of products it stocked, Stockton would need complete access to the inventory information in its POS system.
"This seemed rather unusual and premature, so we decided to do some research on him and his company," Dawson Wheeler, co-owner of Rock Creek, told us.
Over the course of the email exchanges, Stockton made references to two other retailers according to Wheeler. One of those retailers was The Outside World in Dawsonville, Ga. We contacted The Outside World owner Brent Troncalli who confirmed that Stockton had indeed contacted him. Essentially, Stockton had asked for the same information from him, citing Rock Creek as a retailer with which Encio was working. Troncalli told SNEWSÂ® that he became convinced it was a scam when the online catalog he asked for from Encio looked as if it had been lifted almost entirely from another catalog retailer, although he said he could not remember who specifically. At that point, he told Stockton to take a hike and has not heard from him since.
Also in the email exchange with Rock Creek, Stockton lifted the veil a bit on his operation -- perhaps more than intended -- when he made a reference to Cary Christian, the registered owner of Ridge Bound. In the email, Stockton stated, "Thanks for your email. I can put you in touch with Cary Christian, our IT manager. He would probably be the best person to speak with regarding the IT issues. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. If necessary we can also bring on one of the lead programmers to discuss. We can get on a conference call with your IT guy to hammer out some details. I would be happy to provide you with some contacts, but first we should discuss a couple challenges. I am a bit confused about the percentage range you threw out. From my understanding of the Outdoor Industry, the margin that you are working from is a bit higher than most. We are required to pay AAFES (ed. note: Army and Air Force Exchange Service) a commission of around 15% right off the bat because of the sheer volume they demand. Since the relationship is exclusive, they cannot go to anyone else for this type of solution, nor can a traditional retailer go to them without coming thru us. The challenge, to me, seems to be the availability of the product. This is something I spoke to ROI buying group about earlier today. I have no doubts about the volume of product we can push out the door. AAFES and we project we will do around 3M in hard & softgoods for '05. The problem comes from finding the right sources for the product. This is where I am finding the most challenge. Do you have any suggestions? Regards, Eric."
Wheeler heard from Stockton several more times, and then the emails stopped in late October 2004, perhaps when it became clear Rock Creek was simply baiting Stockton to reveal as much as possible about his plans.
"The last time we heard from Eric, he was on his way to India to volunteer with orphanages. He never contacted us again," Wheeler told us.
SNEWSÂ® Fact: We further linked Encio with Ridge Bound when a SNEWSÂ® operative purchased a product from Ridge Bound on its eBay site.
What we found: On the shipping label was the following return address information: Ridgebound.com, 3137 W. Central Ave., Toledo, Ohio 43606. In asking manufacturers to check their records for Encio Outdoors, SNEWSÂ® confirmed this address is the same one that Encio lists as a shipping address.
SNEWSÂ® Fact: We sent an operative to each of Ridge Bound's and Encio's billing, shipping and return addresses as supplied by the company, printed on return labels, and provided by the call center serving Ridgebound.com.
What we found: One Ohio address (3137 W. Central Avenue, Toledo) belongs to Wrap 'N Ship (www.wrapnship.com). It will ship and package, performs pick and pack services, and uses just about all the carriers to do so. It is located in a small strip center. We placed two different calls to the wrapping store seeking to return products, one to be returned to Encio and one to Ridge Bound. In both cases, we were told we could ship the products to the 3137 address and the packages would be sent to the company.
A second Ohio address (427 W. Dussel Drive, Maumee) belongs to an outlet of The UPS store located in a shopping complex. A call to that location confirmed that Encio has an account there and does receive mail. This is the address that Encio lists with manufacturers as the company's billing address.
A third Ohio address( 373 Tomahawk, Maumee) has a sign on the building that states it belongs to iFulfill.com. That company recently went bankrupt, but until earlier this year was a pick-and-pack shipper servicing web-based companies. (ifulfill.com is now owned by www.webgistix.com, itself a fulfillment company.)
SNEWSÂ® Fact: The Internet provider hosting Ridgebound.com is Active Host, located at www.activehost.com. Active Host is located in Schenectady, N.Y., and can be reached by calling 518-372-2842.
What we found: SNEWSÂ® recommends that any company (retailer or manufacturer) that believes its property (images, copyrighted material, trademarks, etc.) are being used fraudulently by Ridgebound.com, that it should contact Active Host directly.
SNEWSÂ® Fact: SNEWSÂ® left numerous email and voice mail messages for both Stockton and Christian.
What we found: None were returned except one email, with a one-line response to our query regarding illegal use of trademarks and copyrights: "No comment." Wheeler and several others did reach Christian via his mobile phone, and in each case, were either hung up on, yelled at, sworn at, or treated with disdain. In each case, we were told, Christian essentially claimed the industry is powerless to do anything and that everything on his site is in the public domain.
SNEWSÂ® Fact: In an Oct. 28 email to a manufacturer, Stockton further confirms Encio's connection with Ridge Bound with an email footnote, perhaps inadvertently attached:
"Thank you for your emails and faxes. I did get them, but our email has been acting up for some reason. It has been fixed, so we should be good now :) In any case, go ahead and charge us for the balance.
Would you like to know how Ridge Bound supports orphanages in India? Please take a moment to consider helping the suffering children of the world."
What we found: Wait. He was writing as Encio, but the footnote said Ridge Bound. And now we have a link in the email footnote takes visitors to another website, www.i58projects.com. Stockton's name appears as a reference on the site, one that seeks to collect donations reportedly to go to benefit orphans in India.
Remembering we had seen that orphans in India footnote before, we dug back into our piles of notes and found an order confirmation email sent from Ridgebound.com to our operative following the shipment of the order we placed. (We removed all identifying codes and names to protect our operative and replaced them with "X").
"From: "eBay Member: ridgebound" <email@example.com>
Subject: Your item has been shipped.
Date: XXX, XX Oct 2005
I have shipped the following item to you. You should be receiving it shortly.
Item title: XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX, NEW!
Web Address: http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=XXXXXXXXX
Item number: XXXXXXX
Buyer User ID: XXXXXX
Seller User ID: ridgebound
Once your item arrives in satisfactory condition, please leave feedback for me. I will do the same for you. Thank you again! Would you like to know how Ridge Bound supports orphanages in India? Please take a moment to consider helping the suffering children of the world at www.i58projects.org."
Game, set and match, it seems.
SNEWSÂ® Fact: i58projects.com reports it donates money to orphanages in India.
What we found: With apparent links between Ridge Bound, Encio and i58projects.com, we began looking into i58projects.com. (The company uses both dot-com and dot-org.) There we also found contradictions and apparently an unapproved logo and endorsement.
Yes, i58projects is a registered 501(c)(3), and it is a Florida-registered non-profit corporation, but it is very hard to see where the money it collects is going. The site claims it is endorsed by the Red Cross for Katrina housing support. When we called the office of the Red Cross that i58 claims is doing the endorsing, we were informed that the Red Cross does not endorse any organization and that the Red Cross would begin looking into the reference immediately. We also contacted India-based Hopegivers International, founded by Bishop M.A. Thomas, with a U.S. fundraising office in Georgia, headed up by his son, Samuel Thomas. i58projects makes elaborate references to extensive support for Hopegivers and the orphans of India throughout the site, including an endorsement by Eric Stockton with an email contact of firstname.lastname@example.org. We were informed that while Hopegivers is very appreciative of a regular monthly donation of approximately $2,000 from i58projects.com, it has no official relationship with it. Calls to other numbers on the site were picked up by, one, a doctor's office and, two, a mobile phone answered by a woman with a British accent who confirmed that she knew Stockton, but provided no further detail.
i58 is likely a reference to the Biblical verse, Isaiah 58, which states, in part: â€œIs not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?â€
SNEWSÂ® View: Wow! What an elaborate game of smoke and mirrors. We could have kept digging, but we have other fish to fry and we accomplished what we were asked to do â€“ pull off the veil of mystery that hung over Ridgebound.com. In the process, we uncovered a much more elaborate game also involving a company that manufacturers had believed was legitimate â€“ Encio Outdoors. We have been told that the FBI has been notified, as well as the FCC. In addition, information has been provided to the criminal investigations unit of the IRS in Florida. If there is a link between Encio, Ridge Bound and i58projects, it will be up to them to uncover it.
Bottom line here, though, is that this should never have gotten this far. We know manufacturers are eager to open up new accounts, especially ones that pay bills on time. And Encio did pay its bills, albeit with a credit card in most instances, we've been told. While not unusual, shouldn't it be curious to any manufacturer when it receives payment for invoices by credit card time after time?
Worse, how on earth did any company in its right mind open up Encio in the first place as an account when it has no physical address to speak of? UPS stores, third-party fulfillment centers and third-party warehouses do not count as a ringing endorsement of a business's solid footing in the community or industry, nor its reputation as a credible enterprise.
We would heartily suggest, especially in light of this incident, that it is far too easy to become a dealer for too many manufacturers these days. We would also humbly recommend that manufacturers establish very firm, and non-flexible policies that prohibit the opening of a dealer unless that dealer can prove it has a physical address that it utilizes for conducting day-to-day business that include payroll, accounting, buying, warehousing and customer service. We realize that third-party warehousing is something that might be needed by some, but usually not as a startup.
Have a comment to make about the Ridgebound.com story? Then head to the SNEWSÂ® Forum -- a secure place that can only be read by those of us in the industry, and a place where you can say anything, as long as you are not simply flaming or nuking another person or company for personal reasons. Click on www.snewsnet.com/forums -- it's your Forum, your voice.