National Consumer Protection Week: Protect Your Neighbors from Scams

When you gather for Town Meeting day to tackle issues in your community, take a moment to spread the message about scams. By having a conversation with our neighbors, together we can work to stop scams.

Earlier this year, we released the top scams reported to our office in 2018.  This information is still up on our blog, which you can review here. Knowing the common scam categories can be useful in identifying scams, but this shouldn’t be the only information you share. Scams come in all different forms and adapt over time. During National Consumer Protection Week, you can commit to being scam savvy and sharing what you know with others.

Know the Signs to Spot Scams:

Remember:  If it’s too good to be true, it probably is!

Suspect:

  • Unsolicited Communications: If you didn’t ask for a contact, question why you are receiving it, even if you get something in the mail. Verify the info shared against information you know and trust. Classic unsolicited communications are computer tech support pop ups messages and phone calls.

  • Demands for Urgent Response: Scammers will demand a fast response from you to take advantage of the fact that you are busy. Anytime an immediate response is requested, slow down and take your time. It is in the urgency of the moment that people respond to scams. Imagine how a busy restaurant might respond to a sudden claim of electricity disconnection during the busy lunch hour.  The scam recipient may be more likely to respond for fear of losing lunch profits.

  • Requests for Personal Information: Shut down requests for such information by contacting a source you know and trust instead.  For a bank account, the phone numbers referenced in your statement may be a good resource; for a credit card the number on the back of your card is a good option. Never respond to requests to reset your password by clicking on link in your email. Never provide your information in response to unsolicited communications.

  • Requests for Payment:  Scammers have success in requiring odd forms of payment that are difficult to be tracked down, like gift cards, wire transfers, and peer to peer transaction services.

Gift Card Scams

How to Spot:  You are asked to pay outside of a vendor store/website by reading off the numbers on the back of the card or by taking a picture of the back of the card and sending it.

Common gift cards requested include:

  • Apple iTunes
  • Google Play
  • Walmart
  • Target

Remember: Unless you are using the card for the actual relevant company, do not pay with gift cards! Watch out for copycat websites too!


Wire Transfer Scams

How to Spot: You are asked to pay by wire transfer.

Common wire companies used:

  • Your bank!
  • Western Union
  • Money Gram
  • RIA Financial

Remember:  Sending a wire transfer is like sending cash! Never send a wire transfer to someone you don’t know!


Peer to Peer Payment Scams

How to Spot:  You are asked to pay using a P2P service. You may even already use this service to make other payments.

Common P2P companies used:

  • Paypal Friends and Family (No Paypal buyer purchase protection)
  • Facebook P2P in Messenger
  • Apple Pay
  • Venmo
  • Zelle
  • Cash App
mobile shopping

Remember:  Sending through P2P is typically instantaneous, leaving little room to make fraud disputes. Never use a P2P to send money to someone you don’t know!

Scammers want your money. They’ll adapt these methods, or resort to old methods of payment, like cash, check or money order. If you think you’ve encountered a scam, but aren’t sure, call our office at 800-649-2424. Find out more from the FTC.

By sharing this information and your general awareness about scams with others, you can help stop scams! To become more informed, you can sign up for Scam Alerts on our website, connect with our office on social media, and invite others to follow us.  Always hang up on scammers. For even more information about scams, visit our website.

Contributing Writer: Crystal Baldwin

Vermont’s Top Scams of 2018

Top 10 Scams of VT 2018

Vermonters filed 5,471 scam reports with the Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) in 2018 according to the Attorney General’s list of top 10 most commonly reported scams of the year. This amounts to a 4.55% increase in scams from 2017. As new scams emerged, old scams persisted. The IRS scam, which involves scammers claiming to be government officials collecting back taxes, was the most common scam for the fifth year in a row. Vermonters filed 1,429 reports regarding the IRS scam.

Spoofing, when scammers falsify information on Caller ID to appear as though the call comes from a local number, is on the rise. One type of this call is the “reflector” scam, which involves repeated calls coming in from ones’ own number. Another new scam this year reported by more than 100 Vermonters was a threatening email containing an old password and demanding money. The number of social security number phishing scams also increased, rising sharply at the end of the year.

“Scam calls are everywhere and affect everyone,” Attorney General T.J. Donovan said. “I urge Vermonters to stay alert and know the common scams. And please continue to report scams to my office so we can work to educate and protect Vermonters.”

Scam reports total over one-third of all contacts to CAP, making them one of the most common consumer issues affecting Vermonters. To counter the overwhelming number of scams, Attorney General T.J. Donovan, in partnership with the Department of Public Safety, launched a new scam alert system in 2017 to warn Vermonters about new or widespread scams. Vermonters can report a scam or sign up for the Scam Alert system by going to ago.vermont.gov/cap or by calling CAP at 1-800-649-2424.

The top 10 scams of 2018 are:

  1. IRS imposter
  2. Social security number phishing
  3. Computer tech support
  4. Grandchild imposter
  5. Debt collection threats
  6. Spoofing
  7. Reflector (claim to be Microsoft)
  8. Email extortion
  9. Publishers clearinghouse sweepstakes claims
  10. Sweepstakes claims (general)

Information about each scam:

  1. IRS Imposter

 The scam: A phone call claiming you owe “back taxes” or payments to the government allegedly from the IRS or “US Treasury and Legal Affairs.” They may threaten you with arrest or investigation.

How to ID the scam: The IRS will never call you at home to threaten legal action.

What to do: Don’t respond to these callers. If you think you may actually owe back taxes, hang up and contact the IRS directly at 1-800-829-1040.

  1. Social Security Number Phishing

The scam: An attempt to obtain your social security number by posing as the Social Security Administration or a business. They may try to get access to your social security number by telling you it has been compromised or stolen.

How to ID the scam: If social security (or any official agency) wanted to contact you, they would not call to ask for your personal information, especially your social security number, over the phone.

What to do: Be wary responding to unsolicited contacts and never provide personal information to unknown contacts.

  1. Computer Tech Support

The scam: A phone call or pop-up message on your computer claiming to be from Microsoft/Windows or another well-known tech company. They will say that there’s a virus or other problem with your computer and try to persuade you to give them remote access to resolve the issue.

How to ID the scam: Legitimate customer service information usually won’t display as a pop-up. Companies like Microsoft, Apple and Google do not call you to notify you of malware on your computer.

What to do: Never provide remote access to your computer to a stranger or click links from an unknown sender in an e-mail or pop-up message. If you get a call from “tech support,” hang up. Also, be careful when searching for tech support numbers online. Some users have been scammed by calling illegitimate company numbers.

  1. Grandchild Imposter

The scam: Scammers pose as grandchildren and claim to be in serious trouble, such as in prison or at the hospital. They urgently request money in the form of wired funds or prepaid gift cards.

How to ID the scam: Call your grandchild or family members on known phone numbers to ensure your grandchild is safe.

 What to do: Never wire or otherwise send funds unless you can verify the emergency.

  1. Debt Collection Threats

 The scam: Scammers pose as a debt collector or government official and say legal action will be taken against you if you don’t pay them what you owe.

How to ID the scam: If you did owe a debt collector or official agency money, they are not allowed to threaten you with arrest over the phone.

What to do: Hang up the phone, and if they call again let it go to voicemail. If you think you do actually owe money to a debt collector or other agency, make sure you call and check using a trusted number.

  1. Spoofed Calls

 The scam: Spoofed calls come from a number that appears local to Vermont – or even your town. But in reality, the scammer is often calling from overseas, and “spoofing” the number to make it show up on caller ID as a neighbor so you’ll be inclined to answer.

How to ID the scam: The call comes from a number you don’t recognize and/or happens repeatedly at all hours. It may be your own number.

What to do: Ignore the call. Don’t call the number back – chances are the person you are calling has nothing to do with the scam.

  1. Reflector (claim to be Microsoft)

 The scam: Similar to other spoofed calls, these scammers will call you on what appears to be your own number. Upon picking up, the scammer tells you that your Microsoft software or your computer IP address has been compromised. They will ask you to pay them immediately over the phone to protect your computer data.

How to ID the scam: Nobody from Microsoft would call you to say that your data has been breached or your IP address compromised. They especially wouldn’t ask you to pay immediately using Google Play gift cards or your credit card.

What to do: Never give personal or financial information to an unverified person or service that contacts you.

  1. Email Extortion Scams

The scam: You may receive a threatening email from a person you don’t know saying that they have an old password of yours or some other personal information. They use that against you in order to scare you into paying them.

How to ID the scam: Legitimate actors would never threaten you, even if they had access to your old information.

What to do: Never click on links that are in the email because they may give the scammer remote access to your computer or download viruses. Don’t reply to the email or interact with it in any way and delete it from your inbox. If they refer to a valid password, go to your account directly and change your password.

  1. Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes Claims 

 The scam: A call, email or letter claiming that a consumer has won big from Publisher’s Clearinghouse and needs to pay a fee to collect winnings. Sometimes this will include a realistic-looking check.

How to ID the scam: If you actually win a major prize from Publisher’s Clearinghouse, they will contact you in person. For smaller prizes (less than $10,000), winners are notified by overnight delivery services (FedEx, UPS), certified mail, or email in the case on online giveaways. They never make phone calls.

What to do: Never pay an upfront fee to receive winnings. If you win something, they will pay you – not the other way around.

  1. Sweepstakes Claims (general)

 The scam:  A phone call or mailing claiming that you won money or a prize but have to make a payment in order to receive it. Sometimes the outreach includes a realistic fake check. The check bounces and no “winnings” are ever dispersed.

How to ID the scam: If it is a well-known organization, try contacting them to verify the information. If it is an unknown organization, chances are the winnings are fake. An unsolicited check in the mail from an unknown sender is usually a scam.

What to do: Never pay upfront to receive winnings. If you win something, they will pay you – not the other way around. No actual contest or sweepstakes would you make you pay first to receive money.

Contributing Writer: Sarah Anders

 

Winter in Vermont: Fuel Costs and Staying Warm

As Vermonters, we are familiar with cold temperatures. It gets cold here in the winter. Propane tanksThat’s why access to heat is so important. The Vermont Attorney General’s office is charged with seeing that companies remain in compliance with Consumer Protection Rule 111: Regulation of Propane. Our Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) receives propane complaints each year. Since 2011, there has been an overall decline in propane complaints which is good news.

However, Vermonters contact us more and more about heat insecurity and their inability to afford the lowest cost delivery option of fuel. The Vermont Department of Health recently warned that between 2008 and 2016, 26 Vermonters died from hypothermia. That is 26 too many. VDH advises “Hypothermia happens when your body temperature is abnormally low. It is caused by being in cold temperatures for an extended period of time…Older adults, infants and people with chronic medical conditions are especially susceptible to hypothermia, even after relatively short exposure to cold weather or a small drop in body temperature.”

When consumers can’t afford the cost of fuel or energy to heat their homes, there is a severe risk of hypothermia, especially during such cold winters here in Vermont. People often turn back the dial on their thermostats in order to preserve fuel to forgo the added expense. The CAP hotline has heard stories of families in need of fuel, living on low to no heat in the middle of winter. Lack of fuel is beyond a consumer protection issue; it’s a health risk.

Fuel Truck in the WInter

If you or someone you know is having trouble affording heat this winter, here are some programs that can help: Vermont has the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program as well the WARMTH Program to help. We encourage people who need heat to seek out Vermont Fuel Assistance. Vermonters can call 1-800-479-6151, visit their local Department of Children and Families or Community Action.

Don’t qualify for fuel assistance? Your Community Action office may have a supplemental program, like Fuel Your Neighbors that may be able to help. Also, check with your fuel dealer. The Vermont Fuel Dealer’s Association has “Split the Ticket Program” that delivers free heating fuel to individuals through donations from fuel dealers, local businesses, organizations, and private donors.

For those who agree that going without heat in Vermont is unconscionable, please consider making a donation to support your neighbors in need. Can’t afford it? You can commit to performing wellness checks on people who you suspect may be keeping the dial back. Your neighbors will appreciate the warmth.

Contributing Writer:  Crystal Baldwin

Tips for the Charitable Giving Season

Don't let scammers take the cheer out of your giving seasonAs a little girl, I fondly remember watching my dad open scores of charitable solicitations some containing gifts of greeting cards or address labels, others with a simple request to help their cause.  This giving season, I am now the one who opens the mail with thoughtful poise and consideration, “Which causes should I support this year?”  In this time of giving, many of you may be asking the same question.

To help you decide, I’ve outlined the steps that I take before giving:

1.  When I get a solicitation for a new cause that piques my interest, I research the cause before donating.  Helpful websites, like Charity Navigator and the Better Business Bureau’s Giving Wise Alliance (BBB), have information on charities.  Charity Navigator pulls its information from charities’ IRS tax documents and the BBB has an accreditation program for charities.

2.  I check and double-check solicitation mailing addresses and phone numbers.  I do this even with charities that I regularly contribute to.  I always ask fundraising callers to mail me the solicitation so that I can check the contact information.  If the mailing address and phone number does not pass this verification test, I contact the charity directly.

3.  I look for paid fundraiser information.  A paid fundraiser is a third-party solicitation company that, aside from the fundraising campaign, is not affiliated with the charity.  This means that a portion of the funds raised are split between the charity and the soliciting business.  Vermonters can ask if a third-party fundraiser is involved.  When they are, however, they should disclose this information upfront.  The Attorney General’s Office keeps a record of paid fundraisers registered in our state.  All Vermonters can look to see how funds are allocated between the paid fundraiser under the charities section on our website.  This information can also be requested by contacting the Consumer Assistance Program at 800-649-2424.

4.  I am mindful about the presence of disaster scams.  With the unknown that comes with natural disasters, giving following such events can seem imminent as evidenced by the aftermath of the California wildfires.  Unfortunately, less scrupulous efforts may attempt to take advantage of those who want to help.  Following the above tips will help to identify the scams.  For more on this topic, check out our blog.

These steps help me verify that my money is going to the cause that I intend, and not to a scammer.  It’s easy for a motivated scammer to create a realistic looking website to try to legitimize a fake charity.  If you receive a solicitation that seems suspicious, but just aren’t sure, give the Consumer Assistance Program a call.  We’ll help walk you through the steps that we would take before donating.

Contributing Writer:  Crystal Baldwin is in her tenth year of service with the Consumer Assistance Program.

Protect Your Credit: Get a Free Freeze

Credit on ice

Under the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act, credit freezes are free of charge to anybody, regardless of whether or not they are victims of identity theft. This new law requires credit-reporting agencies to eliminate the cost of credit freezes, credit unfreezes (thaws) and yearlong fraud alerts to consumers.

Website Required:  The three major credit bureaus, Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian must design a website, where consumers can go to request this credit protection. The sites must also provide the ability to opt-out of receiving solicitations in the mail for insurance or credit card approval.

Protection for Children: The act allows guardians to request on behalf of children younger than 16 years old to freeze their credit.

Military Credit Offers: Members of the military with access to active duty alerts can request to remove their name from prescreened credit card offers for two years.


Why Should You Consider a Credit Freeze?

Identity theft is a type of fraud, which can be extremely detrimental to your financial and personal well-being. Identity theft often occurs when a bad actor gets access to your social security number or financial account number. Many consumers believe they won’t become targets for identity theft, because:

  • They odds are slim and assume it won’t happen to them.
  • They don’t have much money in their bank accounts to steal.
  • They don’t have credit cards and assume this means they don’t have a credit history.
  • They don’t have a poor credit history and believe a scammer will not benefit from having their information.

These arguments do NOT prevent bad actors from opening accounts using your information. The main concern is not the money you have but whether new accounts can be open without your knowledge, or consent.


Protect Your Credit

Issuing a credit freeze essentially stops any credit-reporting agency from reporting your credit score or credit report to a lender. Credit reports help lenders decide whether or not to extend a line of credit or grant loans to consumers. Often, without the ability to see the credit report, lenders will deny the credit line or loan, therefore protecting the consumer from unwanted accounts in their name.

Concerned that you may seek a line of credit in the future?—The thaw can help with that. You can contact the company before you plan to take on a new line of credit and lift the freeze temporarily.

The credit freeze is the best line of defense against bad actors stealing your information and using it for their own financial gain. Now that this process is free, anyone can consider placing a credit freeze on their account!

For more information about credit freezes or credit fraud alerts, visit FTC.gov or call our consumer helpline at 1-800-649-2424.

Contributing Writer: Alexandra Esposito

Sources:  The Federal Trade Commission