Vermonter of the Month: Monique Priestley

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.

Attorney General T.J. Donovan with Monique Priestly at The Space On Main in Bradford, VT

Driven by her “love for community in every sense of the word,” our March Vermonter of the Month, Monique Priestley, founded The Space On Main in 2017 as a nonprofit community-based coworking, maker, conference, event, and gallery space in the heart of rural Bradford, Vermont.

Monique grew up on a back road in Piermont, New Hampshire, just over the river from Bradford. From a young age, her parents fostered a love of the arts, learning, hard work, and volunteerism. Monique says that as far back as she can remember, her mom always volunteered in the community and brought her and her sister along to help. In her view, the community was always there to help them in return. Because of this, Monique believes there is strength, energy, and hope in community.

As a teen, Monique moved across the Connecticut River to Bradford. She went on to graduate from Northern Vermont University – Lyndon and then the University of Washington’s Master of Communication in Digital Media program. After completing graduate school in Seattle, Monique returned to Bradford and bought a house. Since then she has served on numerous boards, committees, and commissions, and was recently recognized as the Cohase Chamber of Commerce’s Citizen of the Year.

Today, Monique continues to demonstrate her dedication to community by founding The Space as a way of fostering entrepreneurship, collaboration, creativity, and innovation in the Vermont/New Hampshire Cohase Region. We recently had the pleasure of touring The Space and learning more about the work Monique is doing and what drives her passion for community:

How did you come to understand the need in your community for a space like this? What made you start this program in a rural place like Bradford, Vermont?

I am involved in quite a few local community groups and nonprofits. Before working on The Space On Main (also referred to as The Space), there weren’t many meetings that happened without someone asking, “How do we engage the young professionals here?” I was always the youngest person in any room (often by a few decades) so this question was often directed at me. At the same time, several of Bradford’s most beloved businesses had closed or moved and there was palpable desperation in the air. I started wondering whether I should move back to Seattle (I went to grad school at University of Washington and work remotely for a company there).

At one particularly hard meeting, a mentor and friend of mine asked me to share an idea I had only told a handful of people. I wanted to create a space where people could gather to work, create, teach, and learn side-by-side. I knew there were people who wanted to engage with the community but did not really need or know how to. I wanted to bring them together.

That meeting turned into an instant buzz of ideas. I went home, sent out an online survey to gauge community interest, and got 85 responses that weekend. That was a lot for rural Vermont. I started meeting with those people one-on-one in their homes, in coffee shops, in their studios, at their offices – figuring out exact needs, desires, prices, challenges, vibe, etc.

What is something that has been a welcome discovery? What is something that has been a challenge?

I am inspired every single day by the people who reach out to find out more about The Space, but more importantly, they reach out to find out how they can become an active member of their communities. They just need someone to listen to their story, to their ideas, and to help talk through the questions that are holding them back. It energizes me, it helps awaken something in them, and it makes me appreciate humanity.

In terms of challenges, the whole process has been one big series of challenges. I did not know the first thing about most of the tasks I needed to complete. Luckily, I have always been a lover of problem-solving, unquenchably curious, resourceful, and stubborn.

What has been the community response?

Honestly, mixed. There are people who understood what The Space was from the beginning and have been amazing – and who really made the entire thing possible by providing guidance, funding, and support. There are people who come in, sit down, and talk through what The Space can mean for them. There are the people who do not understand The Space – or really even the spark that happens when people from diverse backgrounds interact with each other. Then there are the people who just have not heard of it yet. The first few keep me going. The latter few present opportunities to practice marketing and storytelling skills.

You’ve said that about 2,300 people have been to The Space on Main since it opened. Are you drawing just from Bradford or surrounding areas? How do you get the word out?

We are definitely drawing from Bradford and the surrounding areas. We have regular members and attendees from up to 45 minutes away on both sides of the Connecticut River. We have had quite a few people stop in that are visiting family or friends. We have requests from people who want to be members while their kids attend local summer camps. We have had a few people become members for a few days at a time while they scope out housing in the Upper Valley. And our Event Space and Conference Room are being booked all the time by local nonprofits and businesses that need a place to hold meetings, classes, and retreats.

We have mostly focused on social media, Vital Communities listservs, and Google. Features on television networks, in Seven Days, and in local papers have really helped. Word of mouth is the biggest driver. We plan to put more of a focus on print advertising.

What are some lessons you’ve learned about starting a small business? Do you have any advice for other Vermonters starting this?

Have patience, appreciation for timing, and listen to everyone and everything. There have been so many moments when I just could not get through to resources that I was advised to pursue. That was frustrating at first, but then I realized that opportunities to connect were presented to me later, in drastically better circumstances. At this point, it happens so much that it is entertaining to see how someone, or something will end up circling back around.

I think my advice would be to be open to any and all ideas and connections. I say yes, to a lot of things that seem pretty random – a person I should talk to, an idea someone wants to brainstorm, an event someone wants to go to, an article I need to read, but I never walk away from anything without having learned something from it. Those lessons increase my awareness for later discoveries and connections.

You are located right on Main Street in downtown Bradford. Are you working on bringing any other new businesses like yours to the downtown? Any long-term goals for The Space?

The cool thing about The Space and being personally engaged is that people reach out all the time with business or community ideas they need help with. As I connect with various people and organizations, it broadens the resources I can help point others towards.

Along with growing membership and rentals to sustain the nonprofit, our goal right now is to develop and fund programming that can provide support and opportunities to remote workers, entrepreneurs, small businesses, and community members. We are also working on funding for equipment that will expand the types of programming that can be offered. We have ideas for using the third floor of the building and have been asked about potential satellites, both of which are longer term goals.

For right now, we are pretty excited for the number of people we have been able to serve in the first five months and cannot wait to see how The Space adapts and evolves over the coming year.

TJ Donovan with Monique Priestly at The Space On Main

National Consumer Protection Week: Resource Roundup

To wrap-up National Consumer Protection Week, we are shining a spotlight on our community partner Vermont 2-1-1, a health and human service helpline offering information and referrals 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Vermont 2-1-1 is a program of the United Ways of Vermont that connects Vermonters to the local agencies, organizations, services and resources they need. Vermont 2-1-1 can help people find resources for basic needs, mental health and substance abuse services, criminal justice and legal services, health care, income support, and more.

Anyone can access Vermont 2-1-1’s confidential and free services by dialing 2-1-1 from anywhere in the state, texting your zip code to 898211 (Monday – Friday from 8AM-8PM), or using their online community resource directory.

Thank you, 2-1-1, for all that you do for Vermonters! Here’s more information on other community referrals for common consumer problems:

Have an insurance complaint?

Have a legal problem?

  • Call Legal Services Vermont at 800-889-2047. An intake specialist will get basic information about you and your legal problem. If they can help you with your legal issue, you will be referred to a paralegal or lawyer at Legal Services Vermont or Vermont Legal Aid. Their services are free. You can also visit their legal help website for information.

Have a banking-related complaint?

  • Contact the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation’s Banking Division. The Banking Division regulates a variety of entities including banks, lenders, and mortgage brokers. To get help with filing a complaint, call 888-568-4547 or file a complaint online.

Have a complaint with a public utility like a phone or internet provider?


Still not sure who can help? Call CAP at 800-649-2424! Our team of consumer advisors are dedicated to helping Vermonters get the support they need. If CAP can’t help you, we’ll figure out who can.

Vermont’s Businesses Are Protected Under Vermont’s Consumer Laws

I

Attorney General T.J. Donovan with George Fraser at Dan and Whit’s in Norwich, VT

Businesses can be consumers too! Vermont is unique in that our Consumer Protection Act defines “consumer” to include businesses that are the consumer in a transaction, such as when purchasing goods or services that are not for resale (9 V.S.A. § 2451a(a)). If your business needs help, contact our Small Business Advocate by emailing AGO.SmallBusiness@vermont.gov or calling 800-649-2424.

Here are some recent examples of how the Small Business Advocate has helped Vermont business consumers:

  • Small business paid a listing service for over 5 years of online advertising when it realized that advertiser had published the wrong phone number for the small business. The listing service offered to refund the small business $450 to resolve the issue, but this was significantly less than what the small business had paid for the service. Our Small Business Advocate reached out to the listing service on the small business’ behalf and was able to secure a refund of more than $4,000 to recapture the costs paid for the service.
  • Small business attempted to cancel their lease for credit card processing equipment (the lease was entered before new protections took effect on July 1, 2018), but the leasing company claimed that the small business owner was unable to cancel the lease agreement and needed to pay the remainder of the lease term. Our Small Business Advocate reviewed the lease contract and found that it did not conform to Vermont’s Home Solicitation Sales Act (9 V.S.A. § 2454). The leasing company agreed to cancel the contract, saving the business owner more than $600 over the course of the lease.
  • Small business signed up for a lead generator service but was dissatisfied with the quality of the referrals they received. Small business requested a refund but did not receive a response from the lead generator. Frustrated by the lack of response, they contacted our Small Business Advocate who brought the complaint to the lead generator’s attention and facilitated a refund to the small business of nearly $300.

Does your business need help? Review our office’s webpage for small businesses and contact our Small Business Advocate today. 

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