Identity Theft and Phishing

By Crystal Baldwin

When I presented on the topic of identity theft a decade ago, the concept seemed somewhat distant, impacting few individuals with identity thieves using dated and laborious tactics to steal identities.  A section of my presentation was devoted to informing about dumpster diving—the fact that people can get a lot of information about your identity from the trash you discard—and encouraging shredding as an identity theft prevention step.  Another section focused on phishing and educating about what phishing is; not to be confused with fishing, except metaphorically of course. 

Protect yourself from Identity Theft! Safeguard your personal information.  Verify requests for information. Shred documents using a cross cutting shredder.

In the age of the robocall and the internet, phishing and identity theft have become more sophisticated in that scammers can make the same automated call to many people at once and data security breaches expose consumers to widespread identity theft.   

Even with advances in technology, identity thieves can still obtain your personal information by rummaging through your trash and phishing.  To demonstrate, let’s take a quiz: 

What do you do with your expired credit card when a replacement arrives in the mail? 

A. Cut it down the middle and throw it out.  The card cannot be used once the magnetic strip is severed.  

B. Run it through a straight-line shredding machine. The card will be of no use when made into little strips.  

C. Cut it into as many small pieces as possible, either with scissors or a cross-cutting shredder. Throw out the pieces in different trash bags. It will be virtually impossible to decipher the card with it in so many pieces and places. 

D. Discard as it is.  Without additional instruction from the bank, no additional steps are necessary.  The card is of no use once it expires. 

My answer is C: Cut the card into a million pieces and discard in multiple places.  Why?  Because even though the card is expired, with card updates the card number stays the same.  Once a determined scammer has obtained the card, all they need to do is follow up with a strategic phishing phone call to you.  When they call, they may claim to be your financial institution and ask a series of phishing questions, which exposes other important numbers about the valid card in your possession: the expiration date and the CCV.   

What exactly is phishing?  

A. A sport of catching fish, using a fishing pole. 

B. A fun excursion with Vermont Phish Phans.  

C. The fraudulent attempt to obtain your personal information or data. 

D. Testing the water pH before ice fishing.  

Hopefully this quiz question was easier.  The answer is also C.   

Identity thieves phish for information about you, your Social Security number, your bank account number, your credit card and debit card numbers, your birthday, and more in order to use the information for their own financial gain.  When an email purports to be your bank, saying you have been locked out of your account and you must login using the enclosed link, a scammer hopes you provide them all of your personal information by completing their realistic-looking bogus form.  Once you have, they can access and use your account.  And, depending on the information you have provided, they may also open up new lines of credit in your name without your knowledge or consent.  Identity thieves have opened home loans, car loans and credit cards.  They usually don’t pay the bills they run up, creating a mountain of work for you to dispute debts you do not owe.  

Phishing scammers may contact you by email, phone, text message, and any other communication mechanism you use currently, including social media.  Phishing scams often present a problem that must be solved by you disclosing some personal information.  They may even pretend to be your computer company, warning about viruses that need to be repaired on your computer.  They offer to help you resolve your virus problem, if you grant them access to your computer and, unknowingly, your personal information stored on your computer.  Phishing scammers may also say a package will soon be delivered to you and you must reply if you did not order a product, or else your credit card will be charged. Then when you call, they ask for your credit card number. 

Protect yourself from phishing scams! Scammers claim to be someone you know. They present a problem that can only be resolved by providing personal info or money, they may contact you by phone, email, text, mail, and even social media.

Phishing scams can be tricky, because there are scenarios in which a bank institution may contact you, such as if there has been fraudulent activity on your credit card. Scammers take advantage of this and try to replicate it.  Rather than trying to determine the difference between a scam call and a call from your bank, take out the guesswork by disconnecting the contact and calling your bank directly on a number you know to be valid.   

Resist the impulse to reply to urgent requests of phishing scammers.  By slowing down and taking steps to verify, you can stop phishing scammers from reeling you into their trap. 

Help CAP prevent scams by sharing this information with your community.  Have a scam to report? Use CAP’s online scam reporting form

For more information about identity theft, visit our website

Help us stop these scams by sharing this information with those you care about. Get notified about the latest scams: Sign up for VT Scam Alert System alerts.  

Puppy Love

By Crystal Baldwin 

Nothing quite beats puppy snuggles to lift spirits and brighten moods. Though I speak now mostly from personal experience as the owner of a sweet cuddly chihuahua, Bobby, my sweeping generalization is based in fact. Loving on animals induces the cuddle chemical, oxytocin, giving the body a calming feel-good rush. Who couldn’t use a bit of pick-me-up right now?  

Lap dog Bobby snuggling

I know I’ve been cuddling with my dog more. I feel lucky to have him and to have purchased him as a purebred puppy for the discount price of $225 from a legitimate breeder in Kentucky when I lived there. $225 was a steal for my companion. In retrospect, I would have paid much more for him and the joy he has brought my life. And realistically, I know many Vermonters do. They spend hours searching for the perfect pet to expand their family and when found, spare no expense to bring them home. 

Sadly, scammers know this. They’ve devised skilled, deceitful plans to connect you with fake puppy companions, take your money, and give you nothing in return—except, perhaps, a broken heart. These scammers are mostly lurking in indiscreet corners of the internet, posting poached photos of someone else’s pets, claiming they are for sale and that they’ll ship them to you. Sometimes they’ll claim you can get the pet for the unbelievable price I paid, $225 or less. Sometimes they claim the pet is free but you must pay shipment fees or for medical complications that arose. Drawn by the plethora of adorable photos and the anticipation to snuggle your cutie, you send the money. The website looks legitimate and with all those photos, you never consider that this pup-for-sale is part of an intricately woven tale of fiction.    

Puppy Love image warns: Don't get scammed by Puppy Love. Find out more about online pet listing scams on the CAP blog: blog.uvm.edu/cap

What are you to do then? News sources have reported more people are purchasing furry friends during the pandemic. While we’re tethered to our homes, online buying seems to make the most sense.  What we’ve seen at the Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) through scam reports, however, is that when consumers purchase from online puppy sellers sight unseen, even from supposed Vermont businesses, folks are sending money and not getting a pet as promised.   

The simplest way to avoid online puppy scams is to commit to “pet the pet” before turning over any money. If you don’t have the lovable furry friend in hand: 

  • Don’t wire transfer money 
  • Don’t give the seller gift card information  
  • Don’t send a peer-to-peer payment (Venmo, PayPal Friends/Family, Zelle) 
  • Don’t mail cash, money orders, or/checks 
  • Don’t give out automatic debit information of your bank account or read off a check number 
  • Don’t provide a credit or debit card number 
  • Don’t give the seller remote access to your computer 
  • Don’t secure the pet purchase by providing copies of your license or Social Security card. 

I wish I had a better solution for you. I wish there was a magical website that connected each person to their pet family member. I wish I knew of a place in Vermont, or New England for that matter, where a person could buy a purebred puppy for as little as $225, like I did—believe me, I consider myself lucky. I am sad to say that I don’t. Absent this magical website, the best thing you can do is connect with people in your network and ask where they got their dogs. If your friends are like my friends, you will likely be referred to the Humane Society (Addison County Humane SocietyCentral Vermont Humane SocietyHumane Society of Chittenden CountyFranklin County Humane SocietyRutland County Humane SocietySpringfield Humane SocietyWindham County Humane Society). 

Want to learn more about scams and scam prevention? 

For more information about common scams and scams on the rise, we encourage you to utilize the following resources:  

CAP Connection: Consumer Assistance Program Blog  

Common Scams in Vermont  

Federal Trade Commission Scam Alerts  

If you would like to help stop scams, consider being a CAP Cares Ally, by getting scam alerts and notices from our office and committing to sharing scam information with those in your community.  

Get alerts from our office:  

To receive scam alerts about scams on the rise in Vermont by phone call, text, or email, use the following link to sign up for Scam Alerts:  https://ago.vermont.gov/scam-alerts-signup-form/. Need assistance signing up? Call the Consumer Assistance Program at 800-649-2424. We can help you sign up and we can assist if you have questions, concerns, or need help determining if you have been a victim of a scam.  

Internet Scams to Avoid

By Crystal Baldwin 

This time last year, I had no idea my whole life would be online—work, exercise, shopping excursions, and more.  Now that pretty much every facet of my life, and likely yours too, involves the internet, we must be on the lookout for new and developing scams to prevent ourselves and our friends and loved ones from being scammed.   

Common scam signs are unverified requests for personal information and money, whether requested through gift card, wire transfer, cash, peer-to-peer payment, postal money order, or check. 

The following are some anticipated internet scams to avoid: 
 
CEO/boss and business/organization personnel imposter scams:  Business personnel working remotely, in distracting environments and away from regular exchange with colleagues, may receive urgent messages from someone purporting to be their boss or colleague ordering funds to be transferred. 

  • Spot the Scam:  Scammers create an email address like your colleague’s and assign the name of the email account holder to be the person’s name. 
  • How they trick us:  It is easy to miss that the details of the email address have changed, particularly when operating on mobile devices, which often only display the email sender’s name.  
  • Scam Prevention:  In business operations, put into place verification checks.  Ensure one check includes verifying requests directly with the sender through a phone call or video chat.  Also, require a third party to be involved, such as another colleague

Job and work-at-home offers and business opportunity scams:  These involve enticing offers to make a lot of money in exchange for performing simple tasks and transmitting money.  

  • Spot the Scam:  Commonalities among all such scams offer work that is too good to be true, ask for payment or your personal information at some point, and refuse to communicate with you by video chat on your terms. 
  • How they trick us:  These scams can hide in plain sight, often posting in known online listings, like LinkedIn and Indeed, and even post listings under known business names.
  • Scam Prevention:  Standard application and onboarding procedures apply to home-based jobs as onsite positions:  You never provide your personal information up front. You never have to give money to your employer.  For business opportunities, the FTC prohibits the exchange of payment prior to the issuance of very specific disclosures.  

Friend-in-need and fake crowdfunding scams:  We have heard reports of Vermonters responding to emailed and messaged requests for help for various needs, such as to support missions and charitable causes, some scammers even claim to be the pastor of a congregation.  The scam pulls us in as we strive for connection and community through this time of isolation. We want to be helpful but can’t volunteer in the personal ways we used. 

  • Spot the Scam:  The message comes as a surprise and you can’t reach your friend through other methods, such as by phone, except the digital way in which you received the message.   
  • How they trick us:  We are convinced that the communication is actually coming from our friend and we do not know that their account was likely hacked or a fake account was created to solicit you.  
  • Scam Prevention:  Take steps to verify, even if the solicitor requests you not to tell others. A phone call to the person directly or another who is aware of the person’s whereabouts is key here.   

Fake news and affiliated endorsement of cure-all products:  Scammers will take advantage of consumers accessing news online and claim to have exclusive cures and vaccines.    

  • Spot the Scam:  The news popped up in a social media feed, in an email, or in a news alert with a media name you did not recognize. The information is not verified in other reputable news sources, or through a known health organization.   
  • How they trick us:  The alerts and ads use compelling stories and scare tactics that trigger us to respond emotionally, rather than rationally, to false promises.   
  • Scam Prevention:  Regularly check-in with trusted websites, such as the CDC and Vermont Department of Health for updates on the status of the virus and how it is being treated.  

Fake charities:  As is common with disaster and crisis scams, consumers can expect fake charity scams to prey on their generosity to help others in need.  They will most definitely occur online but may also occur by phone.      

  • Spot the Scam:  Unsolicited requests for donations by a charity you have never heard of and cannot verify.   
  • How they trick us:  They take advantage of our desire to help others and the sense of urgency to respond.   
  • Scam Prevention:  Verify the charity by using websites like Charity Navigator and the BBB’s Giving Wise Alliance.  Always request solicitations in written form to give you time to do your research and consider the ask. Give to known charities and assign designation to specific causes. 

This is not a comprehensive list of the scams that may be encountered online.  New scams will develop, and when they do, we ask that you share the information with your community as well as with the Consumer Assistance Program at ago.cap@vermont.gov . 

Help us stop these scams by sharing this information with those you care about. Get notified about the latest scams: Sign up for VT Scam Alert System alerts. 

Beware of the Electricity Cut Off Scam

By Crystal Baldwin and Sara Spencer

“Your electricity will be shut off, if you don’t pay.” 

Imagine receiving this message in the middle of your work day while relying on electricity to serve your customers.  Or, maybe the message comes into your home while every single person is using an electronic device for work or school.  The message can be quite alarming, and can cause a person to react on the spot to resolve the perceived problem.  Resist the urge to respond—hang up the phone instead.  

These calls are from scammers claiming to be your utility provider.  They demand payment by gift card, wire transfer, credit/debit cards, peer-to-peer payment, and sometimes even cash.  If you don’t pay right away, they threaten that your electricity will be turned off.  

Utility Disconnection Scam Alert graphic. Hang up the phone. Call your utility company directly. Legitimate companies will not demand payment by gift card or wire transfer. Contact CAP if you've been targeted at (800) 649-2424.

If you are contacted by one of these scams: 

  1. Hang up! Do not engage with the scammer and do not call them back.  
  1. Do not provide any personal information 
  1. If you are concerned about disconnection, call your utility provider. 

Help us stop these scams by sharing this information with those you care about.  Get notified about the latest scams: Sign up for VT Scam Alert System alerts.      

Call the Consumer Assistance Program at 800-649-2424 if you have questions, concerns, or need help determining if you have been a victim of a scam. 

When you receive one of these jarring calls, here is what you can do:

Take steps to verify by remembering SLOW: 

SSlow down.  The scammers urge you to act urgently. Don’t.

LLog the call.  For your assurance, write down the phone number of the caller and hang up.

OOne call. Make a verification call to the business, using a number you know and trust.

WWho cares? Call another person in your life who cares about you. Know that you can call CAP at 1-800-649-2424.  We care and can help identify scams.

Before this scam happens to you, you can take steps now to create a scam action plan.  Keep the SLOW reminder near your phone. Act now to prevent future loss.