Gift Card Scams on the Rise in Vermont

Vermont Scam Alert by the Vermont Attorney General

The Consumer Assistance Program has recorded a 220% increase in gift card scams with loss reports since December.

Gift card scams take many forms; however, all request a gift card as payment and for the numbers on the back of the card to be provided to the scammer.

Be in the know:

  •    Using gift cards as payment is like sending cash.

  •    Providing the numbers on the back of the card is like giving cash:  Scammers may ask you to take pictures of the  card or relay the numbers of the phone.

  •    Scammers may say you must pay with a gift card because your credit card or another form of payment won’t work.

  •    Scammers may claim that using the gift cards will provide you certain incentives or free money opportunities.

  •    Gift cards are only valid forms of payment when used with the card’s identified retailer.

  •    Retail businesses can’t refund gift card funds that have been spent.
Gift Card Scams video produced by the Federal Trade Commission

Watch out for this and other similar scams that ask you to act quickly by providing gift card information, cash or money order, or by sending a wire transfer or peer-to-peer payment.

If you are asked to pay with a gift card, contact CAP right away at 1-800-649-2424.

Contributing Writer: Crystal Baldwin

Friendly Advice

This week, during National Consumer Protection week, our staff members are opening up and sharing stories of when they were scammed. Because no one is invincible to being #scammed. Let’s keep the dialogue moving, share this post and your own scam stories and lessons learned.

While the internet is an incredible tool, it’s also a scammers’ playground.  I encountered a Craigslist scam while searching for a new apartment, and the experience has stuck with me. I hope that others can learn from my encounter with a scammer.

Two years ago, I found myself scouring the internet almost daily as I searched for apartment leads in the Burlington area. One day, I came upon an amazing find on Craigslist, and I knew I had to act fast. It was a beautiful two-bedroom apartment near the lake with a brand-new kitchen and a backyard. It looked amazing and the price was irresistible!

Using the Craigslist “email” option, I contacted the person who had put up the post. I provided them with my phone number and expressed that I was very interested. Shortly thereafter, I received a text message:

Thanks for your interest in the apartment. I am in Florida on business so I can’t show you the place right now, but if you to send me the deposit in the mail the place is yours. Get back to me as soon as possible.

Something didn’t seem right. Feeling uncomfortable and confused, I showed the text message to my friends. “That’s a scam!” they said. My friends encouraged me to look on Zillow.com to see if photos from the Craigslist ad had been stolen from someone else’s listing—and they had! The person who posted on Craigslist had copied all the photos from a legitimate Zillow.com listing and was attempting to get money from desperate apartment-seekers.

At this point in the story, I felt embarrassed and angry. Why would someone do this? How could I have fallen for it? And how are they getting away with something so wrong?

This time, I was lucky. I didn’t send the deposit and I flagged the ad for Craigslist. My friends were there for me and provided much needed advice. Sometimes a second-opinion is all you need to spot a scam.

Here are my scam lessons learned:

  1. Be careful when searching online listings – if it looks too good to be true, it probably is!
  2. Always see an apartment in-person before committing to a lease.
  3. Do not provide a deposit until you have signed a lease.
  4. Get a second opinion: if you come across something that doesn’t feel right, ask a trusted friend or family member for advice.
  5. Never pay for online purchases using cash, money order, bank check, personal check, wire transfer, gift cards (outside the merchant’s website), peer-to-peer payment, bitcoin, and any other option that is not a credit card or known transmitter.

Have you ever been scammed? Tell us about it. Share this post and your own scam stories and lessons learned. The best form of prevention is awareness.

Contributing Writer: Madison Braz

Smarter Than The Scammer

This week, during National Consumer Protection week, our staff members are opening up and sharing stories of when they were scammed. Because no one is invincible to being #scammed. Let’s keep the dialogue moving, share this post and your own scam stories and lessons learned.

Entangling yourself in a scam to see where it goes, or generally thinking you are smarter than the scammer will lead to loss. I know, because I’ve been there. When I was in my early twenties a magazine salesperson arrived at my door. After giving him a glass of water and listening to his dream of winning a contest affiliated with his magazine sales, I reviewed his long list of magazines and I agreed to subscribe. He instructed me to pay with a check or credit card. I knew doing this would give him all my account information and enable him to steal it. Or, I could pay cash. I grinned inside as I realized I had enough cash on hand to complete the transaction, $80. I gave it to him and signed up for four five-year subscriptions. 

When the transaction was complete, he ran out the door waving the pile of cash and barreled into his friend’s car, as if leaving the scene of a bank robbery. I gave him exactly what he wanted—my money without a trace.

Though at the time I was much less savvy than I am now that I work in consumer protection, I, like you, considered myself to be smart and in the know. I was college educated and self-sufficient. Before I was scammed, I had no reason to question the honesty or validity of the seller I engaged with. Thinking back to the incident now, I am awash with shame. I regret my gullibility and naiveté in thinking that a perfect stranger had no ill intent.

Here are my scam lessons learned:

  1. Practice safety first.  Always check to see who is knocking on your door by looking through the peephole or out a window before opening the door. I was disarmed, because I expected a guest. Had I taken this step; I would not have opened the door to a stranger.
  2. If you open the door, it’s fine to be kind to solicitors, but hospitality is not necessary. Keep solicitors outside and in view of neighbors. 
  3. If interested, get all the information and details in writing so you have time to consider and look into the offer.
  4. Never pay on the spot.
  5. Never pay for door-to-door purchases with cash, money order, bank check, personal check, wire transfer, gift cards (outside the merchant’s website), peer-to-peer payment, bitcoin, and any other option that is not a credit card or known transmitter.

Once I was scammed, there are more things I could have done to identify the scammer to authorities and prevent others from being victimized:

  1. I could have documented the license plate, make and model of the vehicle and reported the incident to the police.
  2. I could have gotten copies of materials related to the solicitation, and if he refused, written down the information.
  3. I could have filed a complaint with the Consumer Assistance Program so they could alert the public of such scams.

Magazine and door-to-door scammers are still present today. At CAP, we most often hear about itinerant pavers that claim to be in the area with extra materials and request payment from you to secure a steep discount. Door-to-door meat sellers, chimney sweeps, and alarm installers have also cold called Vermonters and have taken money without fulfilling orders. The best way to avoid door-to-door scams is to wait before buying. Allowing yourself a waiting period gives you time to check into the company and the offer and to talk it over with others. 

The scam artist hopes that the instilled shame that we “should have known better” will prevent us from sharing our story. Why? Because the best scam prevention tactic that we can all partake in is awareness. This week, I shared my stories of being scammed because I know I am not alone, and I don’t want others to experience what I have. The best thing we can do is band together as a strong Vermont community and fight the scammers by sharing our stories.

Have you ever been scammed? Tell us about it. Share this post and your own scam stories and lessons learned. The best form of prevention is awareness.

Contributing Writer: Crystal Baldwin

Scam Invincible

This week, during National Consumer Protection week, our staff members are opening up and sharing stories of when they were scammed. Because no one is invincible to being #scammed. Let’s keep the dialogue moving, share this post and your own scam stories and lessons learned.

I’ll never forget the first time I was scammed. Yes, there was more than one time. And, though the world might expect that because I have an advanced degree and am now a consumer topic expert that I could never be scammed, I assure you I can. And, I know I am not alone in this. In answering the CAP hotline, I often hear scam victims say “I know better. I’m a [fill in the blank]. I am so ashamed.” I’ve heard this line from professors, financial analysts, doctors, computer programmers—the list goes on. No one is invincible to the scam artist. 

The mindset that we are invincible, however, and that we won’t be scammed is a surefire way to get scammed. My personal fault is that I trust in humanity. Perhaps my Vermont upbringing is at play here. I live my day-to-day life anticipating that those around me do not intend to harm me and that I could trust and rely on them if I needed to. If I extend kindness and honesty, the same will be returned.

Early in my professional career, a colleague and friend got a kick out of “Tickle Me Elmo.” I mean, who didn’t? The commercials showed the squeaky voice character laughing and shaking with great glee. I planned to buy her one for her birthday, but like many prized items, I could not find it for sale anywhere. So, I took to eBay. The site had many listings, some new and some used, all pricey, except one. It was advertised as new and, in the box, and the price was right— so right some might say it was too good to be true. I checked the seller’s ratings and she had 99% positive ratings. I thought that was pretty good. I agreed to “buy it now” as opposed to betting my luck with the auction option and in a few clicks the Elmo was set to be mine. 

After I agreed to the purchase, I got a notice from the buyer that I had to pay with a money order, or cash. I sent a postal money order as instructed and never received my item. I filed a dispute with eBay. The seller claimed, “someone must have stolen it” (My packages were never stolen.) and the item didn’t arrive because I had a “weird military address” (I did not have a military address). My eBay account ended up getting restricted because the seller complained about me for having posted a negative review.  I believe the company has since changed their policies. I asked the Post Office what I could do about the lost money order and package. They told me I could do nothing; I was scammed.

Having never met the eBay seller, I trusted her to fulfill her end of the agreement as I had completed mine. Having the mentality that I wouldn’t be scammed contributed to the reason I ultimately was. I trusted a person on the other end of the internet without questioning her motives or having her prove her intentions to me. Scammers will scam whomever they can. I know now there are several things I could have done differently. We can practice healthy skepticism by asking questions to make informed decisions.

Here are my scam lessons learned:

  1. Question offers that are too good to be true. 
  2. Do a deep dive into online seller’s ratings.  (When I later looked at buyer comments, I noticed others had complained of the same problem).
  3. Before paying, demand proof that the item exists.  One option is having the seller send multiple pictures with a specific word documented next to it.
  4. Only pay for online purchases with a secure and trusted method of payment, like with a credit card or known transmitter.
  5. Never pay for online purchases with cash, money order, bank check, personal check, wire transfer, gift cards (outside the merchant’s website), peer-to-peer payment, bitcoin, and any other option that is not a credit card or known transmitter, like noted above.

Once I was scammed, there are more things I could have done to identify the scammer to authorities and prevent others from being victimized:

  1. File a complaint with the Consumer Assistance Program about eBay’s dispute process and this seller. 
  2. Notify the US Postal Inspector regarding the cashed money order and report the address of recipient.
  3. Report the issue to the police.

Over the years, eBay scams have adapted. The most common eBay scams we hear about at CAP now involve communication outside the eBay site and a demand to pay with gift cards. Others report replying to an eBay email or searching for eBay in a browser and being sent to a lookalike eBay website. Always check the site you are on and take steps to validate it. Never complete the transaction outside of the store website. Always be suspicious if a seller requires a specific form of payment, even if it’s eBay gift cards and it looks like you are on the site.

Have you ever been scammed? Tell us about it. Share this post and your own scam stories and lessons learned. The best form of prevention is awareness.

Contributing Writer: Crystal Baldwin

Open Enrollment Medicare Card and Social Security Number Phishing Scam Alert

Scammers are posing as Medicare saying they need your Medicare card number or Social Security Number to issue a new card or to verify medical information to keep your coverage active. The calls may also claim that coverage is expiring or in need of renewal. During Medicare Open Enrollment and all year, hang up on these unsolicited calls!

Listen to Attorney General Donovan’s Scam Alert call

Why they are calling:  This scam attempts to gain access to your Medicare card number or social security number to commit Medicare fraud and identity theft. 

What to do:  Never provide personal information or payment to unknown callers. Vermonters must be particularly cautious about this scam as the calls originate from a spoofed number, appearing as a local phone number on your caller ID, and the scammer is a live caller.

With open enrollment ending this Saturday, scammers may be trying to capitalize on consumers who are reevaluating or adjusting their Medicare coverage. Fortunately, consumers don’t have to navigate the Medicare process alone. In Vermont, representatives of the State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) at 1-800-642-5119 through local Area Agencies on Aging can help. Other questions and concerns about Medicare coverage can be directed to Medicare at 1-800-MEDICARE.

Please help us stop these scams by sharing the information with someone you know. If you have questions about this scam, or have provided personal information to the scammers, please call the Consumer Assistance Program at 1-800-649-2424.

More Resources:
Federal Trade Commission: Protect Yourself Against Medicare Scams
Medicare Open Enrollment Scam Alert by the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation
Medicare.gov

Contributing Writer: Crystal Baldwin