National Consumer Protection Week: Debt Settlement Awareness

Debt can be a major source of stress and financial strain. In fact, the average Vermonter has nearly $10,000 in credit card debt, according to the Burlington Free Press. For National Consumer Protection Week, we’re sharing important information about debt settlement programs.

Helpful services

There are free services that can help you settle your debt. You can find some resources at VTLawHelp.org.

Additionally, you can work directly with your creditors to negotiate a debt settlement without using a third party. The CFPB has great step-by-step information about how to do this here. There are also nonprofit debt settlement services you use instead of using private, for-profit companies that can come with risks.  Local Community Action Agencies are a great resource for free advice too.  

Be careful in dealing with for-profit debt adjusters

If you choose to use a for-profit debt settlement option, it’s important that you use caution. These private, for-profit businesses may offer to settle your debts for less than what you owe by working directly with creditors.

The Federal Trade Commission provides the following cautions:

“You should be aware that “creditors have no obligation to agree to negotiate a settlement of the amount you owe.  There is a chance that your debt settlement company will not be able to settle some of your debts — even if you set aside the monthly amounts the program requires.

“Debt settlement companies also often try to negotiate smaller debts first, leaving interest and fees on large debts to grow.”

Because “debt settlement programs often ask — or encourage — you to stop sending payments directly to your creditors, they may have a negative impact on your credit report and other consequences.”

Avoiding scams

There are many debt settlement scams out there. Any company offering debt settlement or debt adjustment services in our state must be licensed with the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation.  You can check a license online by searching the business name on nmlsconsumeraccess.org.

Find out more

You can learn more about debt adjusters on our website:https://ago.vermont.gov/consumer/money-and-credit/debt-adjusters/

If you have any questions about next steps, you can always contact the Consumer Assistance Program at 1-800-649-2424. 

You can take action to tackle your debt, but be cautious of organizations that may try to take advantage. You have the power to protect yourself and your finances. 

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

National Consumer Protection Week: Used Car Buying Guidance

It’s National Consumer Protection Week! Check in all week for consumer information you should know.

Today, we’re informing consumers about buying a car. Buying a car is often one of the largest purchases made in a consumer’s life. Its vital consumers take the time to review and research their options prior to purchasing a car. These online guides can help:

It’s important to thoroughly check out any vehicle you intend to buy, including its warranty! On dealer sold used cars, the Buyer’s Guide informs about warranty coverage. There are many types of warranties and they vary in the amount of coverage they provide. A car may be sold without a warranty, so it’s important to check this out.

In an effort to encourage you to know before you go car shopping, you can call the Consumer Assistance Program at 800-649-2424.

Finally, if you have concerns about a car purchase, you may also contact the Consumer Assistance Program to discuss complaint options. CAP may provide complaint mediation, refer to agencies and organizations that may help, or provide an attorney referral, such as to the Vermont BAR Association’s Referral Service (800-639-7036) or to Vermont Legal Aid (800-889-2047).

Vermonters of the Month: Court Diversion Program Volunteers

Attorney General T.J. Donovan with Anne Conway, Lamoille County Chamber of Commerce Volunteer of the Year

This is a monthly series in which the Attorney General will feature a Vermonter doing exemplary work in their community. Have someone you think should be featured? Email AGO.CAP@vermont.gov.

We are honoring, as our February Vermonters of the Month, the 271 volunteers who generously give their time to Vermont’s Court Diversion programs. This year, Vermont Court Diversion programs celebrate their 40th anniversary.

Court Diversionis a restorative alternative to the traditional criminal justice system for individuals charged with a crime. After police issue a citation for violating the law, the state’s attorney decides whether to refer the person out of the court system to the community-based Court Diversion program. Volunteers are a critical component of this program’s success. They meet as a restorative panel to hear the needs of victims, learn the underlying factors in the individual’s life that contributed to the crime, and create an opportunity for the individual to take responsibility for their actions, repair harm to victims, and rebuild connections to their community.

 We had the pleasure of speaking with two amazing volunteers, Anne Conway of Lamoille Restorative Center and Linda Brown of Windsor County Court Diversion,  about their experiences with Court Diversion and to learn about what drives their passion for volunteerism.

Anne Conway

Born in Hardwick, raised in Morrisville, transplanted to Boston—Anne Conway returned to Morrisville after 28 years away from her home state of Vermont. Anne has been actively volunteering in different capacities for nine years and was honored in February as Lamoille County Chamber of Commerce’s Volunteer of the Year.

Court Diversion follows a restorative justice model: what does restorative justice mean to you?

I’ve seen people who’ve made unwise decisions and hurt others, as well as themselves, take responsibility for what they did and then repair that harm. To me, that is restorative justice.

How has court diversion/restorative justice impacted your community?

Ultimately, it helps to make our community safer. I have personally witnessed individuals who have valued this second chance provided by Diversion and moved forward in their life on a positive path.

Can you share a story of a memorable panel meeting or related-experience that has had a lasting impact on you?

I remember one participant who had allowed alcohol to become foremost in their life – this led to an arrest, an unpleasant divorce, divided custody of children, and the destruction of their career.  One part of the person’s agreement was to write a letter of ‘apology’ to their family. When the participant returned for the second visit, they read a very sincere and touching letter of apology, regret and resolve. In addition, the person had found a part-time job and was in recovery. As a panel member, I valued seeing the positive results of our program.

Reflecting on your experience as a volunteer, have you observed a change in the program over the course of your experience? 

I have seen more creative ways for an offender to correct the harm they did and improve their view of themselves and the community in which they live.

What impact, if any, has being a Court Diversion volunteer had on your life?

The most satisfying aspect of my panel participation is that I am reminded that we are all in ‘this’ together and that we can make a difference in the lives of others.

Linda Brown

Like Anne, Linda Brown was born and raised in Vermont but left the state as a young adult to pursue a career in New York City. Linda returned to her hometown of Springfield after 30+ years away to care for her mother. Since then, she has been volunteering with the Court Diversion program for more than 15 years.

Can you share a story of a memorable panel meeting or related-experience that has had a lasting impact on you?

Panel meetings are all very interesting, but the thing that had the most lasting impact on me was a dynamic class given to us volunteers called “Bridges Out of Poverty.” It helped me to understand many of the people who come to Diversion and increased my level of compassion for them. I truly believe we must have compassion to work well with people.

Court Diversion follows a restorative justice model: what does restorative justice mean to you?

Restorative justice means to me that a client admits his or her mistake and does something, such as repaying victims or writing an apology letter, to make things right as best they can. I believe all these actions can imprint in a person’s brain and reduce recidivism. And, it certainly helps reduce the backlog of cases in the State of Vermont’s court systems.

Reflecting on your experience as a volunteer, have you observed a change in the program over the course of your experience? 

The most notable change in Court Diversion for me was when participants started to stay in the room while we discussed the restorative agreement. When I first started to volunteer, after we had met with the person, they would step out while we developed a preliminary plan. At first, I did not like this new way. However, I now feel that the participant is more apt to complete the contract that he or she was involved in making.

What impact, if any, has being a Court Diversion volunteer had on your life?

My advice to others looking to make an impact in their community is to volunteer!

Are you interested in becoming a Court Diversion program volunteer? Contact your nearest program to learn more.

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