An Etched Lesson in Car Buying

By Crystal Baldwin

When I searched to purchase my first used car as a freshly licensed teenager in the late ‘90’s, I was fortunate to have an experienced mechanic and negotiator with me.  Our first stop was a used car dealership that was holding a huge blowout event complete with flag garland and free large-print calculators and five salespeople per customer.   I can remember the swarm of eager dealers approaching to this day. We showed up in our ten-year-old Ford LTD.  One salesman approached so daringly that he might have opened the door for me had I not willingly exited the vehicle.  My dad held up the flyer he received at home as he promptly asked about the promised freebie.  The dealer took the flyer from his hand and then pointed to a long line.  He advised us to look at cars while we waited.   

An etched lesson in car buying at blog.uvm.edu/cap

I wanted something simple.  The criteria I stated was, “Four doors and not a hatchback.”  It went without saying that I wanted a reliable car to get me around town to my job and all my activities.  We were led to a seven-year-old white Ford Tempo marked $2,000. For all appearance purposes, it seemed perfect.  I could see myself driving that kind of car.  While the dealer encouraged us to buy it based on price alone, my dad pushed back as if speaking straight from a consumer protection advice manual, “We aren’t putting any money down without thoroughly looking it over and having a test drive.” 

That’s when he crouched down in the crowded dealer lot, nearly pushing his entire body under the car.  From what he could see externally, it looked good enough for a drive, but confirmed that we wouldn’t have a clear sense of the car until it was put up on a lift.  Then, I drove it.  It handled okay in the lot and on the main road.  But, when the dealer called from the back seat for me to take a right turn on another neighborhood road, my dad advised me to take a left onto the thruway.  The car could not reach highway speed and sounded as though it might combust at any moment.  “How does it feel?” my dad asked.

I called back in my loudest octave, “Like it doesn’t want to go anywhere.”  

He followed, “Do you want this car?”  

“No,” I said flatly.   

He turned to the dealer, “We won’t be buying this car.” 

When we got back to the dealership, we quickly got out and were ready to leave, but my dad still wanted his calculator. The salesman said he would go get it.  When he came back, he did not bring the calculator.  Instead, he brought three more salesmen that encircled us with shaming jabs aimed at my father that he was letting me down.  While my heart raced with anxiety and anger, my dad remained calm.  At one point, I heard my dad reply, “I can’t believe you are selling this car.  It sounds like it could break at any minute.  I am not letting my daughter in that thing again.”  By the end of their banter, we walked away with three things:  

  1. My dad was offered a job at the dealership—he did so well saying “No” they wanted him to work for them.  
  2. A large-print calculator (My dad did not stop asking for it).   
  3. An etched lesson: Purchasing a quality used car is best done with backup and calm shrewdness. 

Car buying is something most of us will do only a handful of times in our lives.  How can we properly prepare for the moment we come face to face with a car seller?  While you may not have the benefit of having my father present, there are some things consumers can do to prepare for the big purchase.  The Consumer Assistance Program’s Assistant Director Lisa Jensen recently appeared on Across the Fence to share car buying tips.   

Across the Fence 10/15/2021 – Car Buying Tips from the Vermont Attorney General’s Office

Here are some of the used car purchasing tips highlighted in the show: 

  • Secure financing ahead of time. 
  • Do thorough research on the make/model of the car; search reliability and ratings. 
  • Look up the Kelly Blue Book and NADA and online marketplace values 
  • Check out similar vehicles at multiple dealerships
  • Scrutinize the car: Test drive, get an independent pre-purchase mechanical inspection 
  • Look for the Buyer’s Guide and decipher warranty information; there may be none. 

Buying a car can be complex, time consuming, costly, and emotionally taxing.  Because buying a car is not something we do frequently, having a supportive person present who understands your financial picture and supports your interests can be beneficial.  If you are in the market for a car, consider bringing a trusted companion with you to the sale, such as a friend/family member, who understands your financial picture and supports your interests. 

The Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) is another resource that you can call for tips before car buying.  If you do experience a problem with the purchase of a dealer purchased vehicle, new or used, CAP provides a letter mediation service for Vermonters and works in partnership with the Vermont Auto Dealers Association’s mediation/arbitration program.  

Did I ever get my first car?  Why, yes.  Yes, I did.  It took another week or two, but in time, we found the perfect car for me for half the price.  A metallic blue Mercury Topaz—the off-brand twin of the Ford Tempo.  A test drive and thorough check-up proved the car to be a worthy fit for me.  After many reliable miles, the car was repurposed for parts in the early 2000’s.    

Best friend riding in style in my Mercury.
My best friend riding in style in my Mercury. Circa 1998.

Scammers are using cryptocurrency to steal your money

By Crystal Baldwin 

Recently, three Vermonters reported losing just under $1 million in total to cryptocurrency scams.  Entire retirement accounts were drained, and because of early withdrawal penalties, thousands of dollars are due to the IRS.  Some owe family members for funds borrowed on the chance that cryptocurrency would substantially increase their investment. 

$80 Million Lost to Cryptocurrency Scams since late 2020 as reported by the Federal Trade Commission.
$80M Lost to cryptocurrency scams since October 2020 as reported by the Federal Trade Commission

As a peer-to-peer spending source, every type of scam could at any point use cryptocurrency as the preferred form of payment, over gift cards, wire transfers, and cash, for example.  According to the Federal Trade Commission, cryptocurrency scams have been increasing since 2017 and “skyrocketed” at the end of 2020 (ftc.gov). 

So, what is cryptocurrency? 
In very basic terms, it’s virtual money that uses its own currency, or monetary system.  When we usually think of currency, it’s affiliated with a specific country, has an exchange rate and is produced as banknotes and coins known as fiat currency.  The money in a U.S. bank account will note an amount in U.S. dollars, for example.  Cryptocurrency is usually unaffiliated with a particular country, maintaining its own exchange rate.  As such, cryptocurrency is not backed by any government or other central bank (ncsl.org) like we are used to with US banks which are FDIC insured—insurance that protects your money from bank failure. 

Cryptocurrency is...Risky digital currency recorded in an online public ledger called the "blockchain"

A peer-to-peer payment method

Stored in a digital wallet (software/app) accessible to users with a computer or a mobile device

Transferred as encrypted information (called public and private keys)

Not bound by geography nor backed by government or other central bank

Anonymous, like cash transactions

Taxed as any other income
Information by ncsl.org and finra.org

How is cryptocurrency used? 
To spend using cryptocurrency, a user needs a digital wallet accessible through software or an app and some funds to deposit to convert into cryptocurrency, such as Bitcoin.  There are many different cryptocurrencies, affiliated applications/websites.  Not all cryptocurrencies are the same and, unfortunately, some are entirely fake. 

When transferring, your funds are assigned a unique password that is required to move funds. As such, the transfer of funds happens instantly, with little federal oversight or regulation, making cryptocurrency the currency of choice for fraudsters. 

Cryptocurrency is the preferred payment method of scammers.   
Any type of scam can manifest with crypto being the scammer’s preferred mode of transfer.  Scammers like cryptocurrency, because, unlike with traditional bank transfers and transfers done by a money transmitter (like Western Union and Money Gram), there is no third-party banking institution involved in the transfer.  The transfer itself is peer-to-peer and performed with a unique encryption code (in simple terms, think of the best password you have ever set eyes on).  This means, if you have money in bitcoin and the receiving party receives your encryption code, now the receiving party has your money.  All cryptocurrency transactions that are completed on the blockchain are irreversible and funds cannot be recovered. 

Cryptocurrency scam alert: Ponzi schemes, investment scams and unlicensed sellers, stock scams, hackers and computer tech support scams
Be on the lookout for these cryptocurrency scams

The exchange of funds happens instantaneously, virtually and globally, making the jurisdiction of the monetary exchange difficult to determine.  Even if the receiver says they are in the U.S., you will not be able to verify this claim.  

Is Cryptocurrency an investment or a scam—an investment scam, or something else? 
According to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), cryptocurrency is a “highly speculative investment” and the “Bitcoin futures market should be pursued only by mutual funds with appropriate strategies that support this type of investment” (sec.gov).  A speculative investment is one with a high degree of risk with hopeful long term gains. 

There are a number of fake and a number of honestly operating cryptocurrency investment firms. There remains little regulation in the field.  The SEC indicates, “While these digital assets and the technology behind them may present a new and efficient means for carrying out financial transactions, they also bring increased risk of fraud and manipulation because the markets for these assets are less regulated than traditional capital markets” (sec.gov).  The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) echoes that “The markets for cryptocurrencies remain highly volatile and risky.” To learn more about cryptocurrency markets and products, review the helpful resources on the FINRA website

More to consider: 
As an entirely digital currency, all access points are digital.  Individual accounts can be hacked and cryptocurrencies themselves are not foolproof.  When a cryptocurrency’s system is breached, millions of dollars are lost, as demonstrated in breaches; Bithumb lost $30 million, Coinrail lost $37.2 million, BitGrail lost $195 million, and Coincheck lost $534 million (investopedia.com).  

A person that opts to use cryptocurrency must ensure their account is protected and secure against the most determined hacker.  Even still, there are ways that scammers can obtain direct access to your digital accounts.  Through a convincing tech support scam, they claim there is a problem with your account that must be solved, and you sign them in, allowing them access to everything.  Another easy route is with a simple click of the mouse, the computer can be infected with viruses, opening the virtual door for your computer and accounts on it to be susceptible to scams.   

Without proper security, ensuring your systems will not be breached, one simple hack can risk your entire cryptocurrency account.  With this in mind, digital currency may not be the right choice for someone who sets easy passwords, performs few antivirus checks, or is a carefree web user.     

Report Scams: 
If you or someone you know have encountered a scam in Vermont, report it. Use CAP’s online scam reporting form.  

Help us stop these scams by sharing this information with those you care about. 

References: Finra.org, sec.gov, investopedia.com, ncsl.org, investor.gov. fdic.gov, ftc.gov

Identity Theft How to Guide: 5 Steps

By Emily McDonnell and Katherine Rivers 

Protect yourself from Identity Theft

The state of Vermont defines identity theft as the unauthorized use of another person’s personal identifying information to obtain credit, goods, services, money, or property. It is common that identity theft occurs from use of your credit card and bank account information.  

There are some instances where your social security number and other personal information may be used to acquire identification, lines of credit, loans, or other consumer accounts fraudulently. For more information on Vermont laws regarding privacy and data security, click here. 

Identity theft is more common than you would think and it is evolving rapidly with the growth of technology. All our information is a couple clicks away 

Here are 5 ways to protect yourself if you suspect you are a victim to identity theft:

  1. Review Your Credit Reports.  You can obtain your free credit report from each of the credit reporting bureaus through AnnualCreditReport.com. If you find anything that should not be there, be sure to save a copy of the report. Then, contact the credit reporting agency to dispute all inaccurate items.
  2. Place a Fraud Alert or Freeze on Your Credit Reports.  You can find out more information from the Federal Trade Commission about fraud alerts and freezing your credit files. To place a fraud alert or freeze on your credit files, contact the three credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, TransUnion.  
  3. Close Accounts. Close any accounts that have been tampered with or opened fraudulently.  
  4. File a Police Report. File an “identity theft” police report and ask for a copy for your records. Find your local policy agency.
  5. File a Complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. Click here to be directed to the complaint page of the Federal Trade Commission.  

Want More Info?  

Identity theft is a complex issue facing consumers all over the country. Find out more about identity theft by visiting identity theft.gov, the Federal Trade Commission’s identity theft help and information site.  

Navigating the identity theft recovery process can be overwhelming.  Vermonters with questions about the process can call the Consumer Assistance Program at 1-800-649-2424 or the Federal Trade Commission at 1-877-438-4338. 

Resources:

Federal Trade Commission and IdentityTheft.gov

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day: Help in Your Community

By Crystal Baldwin

On World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, please read and share: “Finding Help,” a guidon help options for Vermonters experiencing elder abuse, exploitation and neglect. 

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day: Building Strong Support for Elders - National Center on Elder Abuse - My Community, your community - free of elder abuse
National Center on Elder Abuse – World Elder Abuse Awareness Day

When considering care for our loved ones, there is a lot to think about . Who should help manage their money?  Should someone live with them, and who? Can we afford to hire http://weaad.elderabuseontario.com/resources/toolkits/an in-home caregiver?  Should we seek out assisted living care, or think about an adult day option?  Once everything is finally sorted out, we can exhale.  But should we?  As our parents checked in on our wellbeing as children, once our elders are set and settled, we must continue to check in on them, too, with great care and concern for their wellbeing. 

On this World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, we must be vigilant and aware of the risk factors and signs of elder abuse. We must serve as supportive connections to older adults in our communities to prevent their social isolation—one of the main elder abuse risk factors (ncea.acl.gov/FAQ.aspx).  As someone who has cared for a vulnerable elder, I know firsthand that it can be difficult to know where to turn for help, advice, and guidance.   

Finding Help: Abuse, Exploitation & Neglect in Later Life - link to guide
Finding Help – A resource guide produced by the VT Attorney General’s Office and the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living

Last fall, the Vermont Attorney General’s Elder Protection Initiative and the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living launched the Finding Help: Abuse, Exploitation and Neglect in Later Life help guide, a resource for Vermont’s most vulnerable and those who care for them.  The guide walks through how to recognize abuse and exploitation, help options outside of government, as well as how to report elder abuse or exploitation to government for response.  This resource outlines free services provided by an array of organizations and state agencies, including: 

  • Elder abuse hotlines and helplines 
  • Case managers and social workers 
  • Domestic & sexual violence organizations 
  • Legal services; and 
  • Other community-based organizations and professionals 

You can help prevent elder abuse and exploitation.  I encourage you to share and save a copy of this guide and keep it among your most referenced resources.  Also, consider printing out the following abbreviated resource guide and share it with the elders in your life.  It includes some of the primary referral resource hotlines and can be kept handy close to the phone for easy reference.   

Resources for VTer's 60+
Vermont 2-1-1
VT Area Agencies on Aging 1-800-642-5119
VT Adult Protective Svcs 1-800-564-1612
VT Office of the Public Guardian 1-800-828-2143
UVMMC Case Mgmt and Social Work Team 1-802-847-3553
SASH 1-802-863-2224
Blueprint for Health - contact a Primary Care Physician
Resources for Vermonters 60+. Print and share.

Resources: 
National Center on Elder Abuse: https://ncea.acl.gov/FAQ.aspx  

Over-the-Counter Hearing Aids: Not FDA Approved

By Crystal Baldwin

My dad lost his hearing while working as a fighter jet mechanic on an aircraft carrier. As the jets took off and landed, he was uncomfortably close to their reverberating buzzsaw rumble.  The resulting ringing in his ears (tinnitus) proved a constant source of agitation the rest of his life. When I talked to him about a potential solution, he would shrug and say, “Hearing aids are expensive, and they aren’t going to make the ringing go away.”  He wanted an easy solution and a quick fix to bring back his hearing.  If someone made the promise that he could have his hearing returned with the purchase of a low-cost over-the counter device, he probably would have bought it. 

Such quick fix products are on the market today.  The trouble is, unlike traditional FDA-approved hearing aids, which a consumer would purchase through the process of visiting their doctor and being fitted, the quick fix over-the-counter hearing aids come with no FDA backing—even if they say they do.  Congress authorized the sale of over-the-counter hearing aids for adults with mild to moderate hearing loss in 2017.  At the time, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was directed to establish regulations: standards for safety, consumer labeling, and manufacturing protections.  FDA regulations of over-the-counter hearing aids have not yet been established. 

When considering purchasing hearing aids or similar products, it is recommended to: 

Be evaluated by a medical professional or licensed hearing specialist to determine if an over-the-counter hearing aid will help you. 
Watch out for and avoid over-the-counter hearing aids that make false claims about the product, such as stating they are FDA-approved, endorsed by the FDA, or have an “FDA Registration Certificate”. 
Do your homework! If a deal seems too good to be true, then it probably is.  
Research the hearing aid seller on impartial review sites. 
Consider all reviews, being skeptical of short reviews and extremely positive testimonials and reviews on a company’s website. 
Be skeptical of promises of deals that are much cheaper than what consumers would pay for a traditional FDA-approved hearing aid. 
Question free-trial offers, which claim the product is free to try for a set period but will bill you at the end of the free trial.
  • Be evaluated by a medical professional or licensed hearing specialist to determine if an over-the-counter hearing aid will help you. 
  • Watch out for and avoid over-the-counter hearing aids that make false claims about the product, such as stating they are FDA-approved, endorsed by the FDA, or have an “FDA Registration Certificate”. 
  • Do your homework! If a deal seems too good to be true, then it probably is.  
    • Research the hearing aid seller on impartial review sites. 
    • Consider all reviews, being skeptical of short reviews and extremely positive testimonials and reviews on a company’s website. 
    • Be skeptical of promises of deals that are much cheaper than what consumers would pay for a traditional FDA-approved hearing aid. 
    • Question free-trial offers, which claim the product is free to try for a set period but will bill you at the end of the free trial.  

If you are having an issue with an over-the-counter hearing device, Vermont consumers can file a complaint with the Vermont Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program.   

Resource: US Food and Drug Administration: Hearing Aids: https://www.fda.gov/medical-devices/consumer-products/hearing-aids