SCAM ALERT: BEWARE OF “COURIERS” COLLECTING CASH IN FAMILY EMERGENCY SCAM

BURLINGTON – Attorney General T.J. Donovan is warning Vermonters about a new variation of the family emergency scam in which scammers are demanding that cash be handed over in person to a “courier.” By presenting a fake emergency in which their loved one needs help getting out of trouble, scammers pressure panicked family members, including grandparents, into acting before they can realize it’s a scam. Until recently, scammers took a hands-off approach in collecting money, demanding gift cards, wire transfers, or virtual payments. Now, the Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) is receiving reports that scammers are enlisting “couriers” to collect cash directly from unsuspecting family members at their homes to resolve the fake emergency. Vermonters who receive these calls should resist the urge to act immediately and take steps to verify the caller’s identity.  

Scam Warning: In-person courier money retrieval scam. Slow down. Take steps to verify. Never give money to parties you cannot verify.

These scenarios are designed by scammers to be emotional and high pressure. If you are presented with this type of scenario—pause; hang up the phone; and call a friend or family member to verify. Do not give money to someone coming to your home. Instead, call local law enforcement and the Consumer Assistance Program to identify and report the scam.

Attorney General Donovan

While the family emergency scam has long plagued Vermonters, CAP is raising awareness about the spread of “couriers” coming to Vermonters’ homes to collect cash. CAP has received 216 reports of family emergency scams since the beginning of the year. In the last week, CAP has received 4 family emergency scam reports from Vermonters who were told that an individual or a “courier” would retrieve cash from them at their homes—3 of these scams resulted in monetary loss. Common elements of this scam include:

  • Claims of a “gag order” being in place which requires secrecy.
  • Cash is needed to pay for a “bond” or a “bail bond agent.”
  • A loved one was involved in a “car accident,” sometimes related to traveling for a COVID-19 test.

CAP has found that scammers are becoming more sophisticated in their contacts and appear to be using internet searches and public social media profiles to research the locations of family members. By searching telephone numbers and addresses on the internet and scanning popular social media sites, scammers can learn about familial relationships, ages, and geographic locations. Scammers then use this information to make the scam seem credible.

CAP advises Vermonters to slow down and follow a plan to not get scammed. Use the SLOW method in urgent situations:

S – SLOW DOWN. Scammers pressure you to act urgently. Take time to regain your calm.
L – LOG THE CONTACT. Write down the phone number of the contact and disengage.
O – ONE CALL. Make one call to a primary contact, such as a friend or family member, and discuss the incident.
W – WHO CARES? Call CAP to identify and report scams at 1-800-649-2424.
Slow down and follow a plan to not get scammed.

S – SLOW DOWN. Scammers pressure you to act urgently. Take time to regain your calm.

L – LOG THE CONTACT. Write down the phone number of the contact and disengage.

O – ONE CALL. Make one call to a primary contact, such as a friend or family member, and discuss the incident.

W – WHO CARES? Call CAP to identify and report scams at 1-800-649-2424.

If you or someone you know has lost money to this scam, contact law enforcement and report the scam to CAP at 1-800-649-2424. Learn more about family emergency scams by watching CAP’s Avoiding the Family Emergency Scam video and reviewing steps to verify at https://ago.vermont.gov/cap/family-imposter/.

Reference: https://ago.vermont.gov/blog/2022/06/02/scam-alert-beware-of-couriers-collecting-cash-in-family-emergency-scam/

Grandchild Imposter Phone Scam Alert

The Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) has received scam reports from Vermonters who have reported receiving calls from scammers claiming to be grandchildren or lawyers representing loved ones in an emergency and that money is needed.

Grandchild Imposter Scam Alert: Hang up the phone! Call a family member or friend to verify. Don't send cash, gift cards, cryptocurrency, or wire transfers. Report scams to cap at ago.vermont.gov/cap/stopping-scams
Grandchild Imposter Scam Alert

When contacted by someone who asks for money, a gift card to be purchased, funds to be wired, or for any other financial transaction, take steps to verify the identity of your loved one in distress.

  1. Slow down. The scammers urge you to act urgently; don’t.
  2. Write down the phone number of the caller and hang up.
  3. Call your grandchild or any other person who can verify their whereabouts and well-being.
  4. Call another person in your life who cares about you. 
  5. Call CAP at 1-800-649-2424.  We care and can help identify scams.
SLOW DOWN: Scammers pressure you to act urgently. Don't! LOG THE CONTACT: Write down the info of the contact and disengage. ONE CALL: Make one call to a primary contact and discuss the incident. WHO CARES? Call CAP to identify and report scams at 1-800-649-2424.
Stop scams with the SLOW Strategy.

Even if you have not been contacted by this scam, now is a great time to connect with loved ones to create a scam action plan in preparation for the likely receipt of scam calls. Consider creating an uncommon family codeword or pin number that you agree to not publicize or share with others. Make a phone tree of reliable contacts to call if a scam like this is received. Learn more about family emergency scams on CAP’s website: ago.vermont.gov/family-imposter. Act now to prevent future loss.

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

If you have lost money to this scam, contact the money transfer company right away! Report the scam to the Consumer Assistance Program at 1-800-649-2424.

For more information on the Attorney General’s efforts to support and protect older Vermonters, visit the webpage of the Attorney General’s Elder Protection Initiative.

Feeding Baby During the Formula Shortage

By Crystal Baldwin

There are only two kinds of food a newborn baby can eat: breastmilk and simulated breastmilk, otherwise known as baby formula. Formula has since the eighteen hundreds been a helpful nutritional supplement—establishing itself as a necessity to grow our infants, helping to overcome milk/food allergies or the obstacles that present in breastfeeding, and providing an alternative for families.  

Baby drinking formula from a bottle
Baby drinking formula.

At six weeks, my baby developed a milk protein allergy. Still too young to eat solids, my family began investing in the protein dense, nutrient rich smoothie that is formula to make sure she was fed.  

Sure, sometimes when I went to the store the preferred brand of her soy-based formula was out of stock. Determined, I sought alternatives to purchasing in-store, so that my baby could have the food she liked. I could buy in bulk from wholesale stores, or direct from the manufacturer online. I opted to have the containers of formula delivered to my doorstep. Upon each delivery arrival, I felt a pang of extreme gratitude in knowing that my baby would eat. I wish I could extend this feeling to every parent navigating the baby formula shortage. 

The Biden administration has highlighted the concern of the baby formula shortage with a plan to alleviate the struggle, which was predominately initiated by a voluntary recall at the largest U.S. formula manufacturer, Abbott Nutrition, three months ago.  

The federal government has been: 

  1. Working with other infant formula manufacturers to increase production, expediting the safe import of infant formula from abroad. 
  1. Calling on both online and store retailers to establish purchasing limits to prevent the possibility of hoarding.  
  1. Simplifying product offerings to increase the speed and scale of production, to stabilize the overall volume of formula available on the market. 
  1. The USDA is urging states to allow WIC recipients to use their WIC benefits on a wider variety of products so that if certain sizes or types of formula are out of stock, they can use their benefits on those that are in stock. 

The federal government is now: 

  1. Invoking the Defense Protection Act, diverting needed ingredients to infant formula manufacturers before sending the supplies to other consumer goods. 
  1. Launching Operation Fly Formula, utilizing Department of Defense commercial aircraft to transport overseas U.S. approved infant formula to deliver it to the store shelves faster
  1. The FDA is working with the largest U.S. formula producer to reopen Abbott’s Sturgis, Michigan facility.  

“On a personal note: I have firsthand experience with the formula shortage. Luckily, we’ve always been able to find alternative sources, but it’s been difficult (and scary at times).”

A Vermont Infant Parent

Vermont parents are resilient and savvy–they have been finding solutions to this problem for months. The parents that have been navigating this well know best, but perhaps I can help simplify some of the information that has been circulating. The following, in addition to the VT Department of Health’s help page released last week, might provide some level of clarity. 

Caregiver Formula Shortage Do’s and Don’ts 

Do 

  • Buy formula online direct from a verified retailer or manufacturer
    • The New York Times is regularly updating a list of online available baby formula stock, organized by formula type. 
    • Other ways to verify online formula sellers: Check BBB.org complaints and reviews, check the business registrations in the state of incorporation, perform an internet search of the company name and “scam” or “complaints” to find if others have reported problems. Double-check the website address before completing the order. Scammers will create mock websites, looking very similar to known sites.  
    • Abbott Nutrition has a hotline number for families that need specialty formula. For information and orders, call 1-800-881-0876
  • Talk to your pediatrician and lactation consultant (or similar Women, Infants and Children support services (WIC)) about healthy alternatives, such as breastfeeding, temporary use of an alternative formula, and introducing solids—where appropriate. 
    • Your pediatrician is your connection to infant safety. Stay connected regarding infant wellbeing. Lactation consultants are covered under most health insurance providers. They are nurses that provide dietary advice, supplement recommendations, and direct teaching and support for nursing mothers.  
  • Call Women, Infants and Children (WIC) and your pediatrician if you cannot adequately feed your baby.  

If this shortage has caused undue hardship and you cannot feed your baby, especially due to the lack of supply, please reach out for help. 

Do: Buy formula online direct from a verified retailer or manufacturer. Do: Use online parenting social groups, such as on Facebook, to get and share the latest supply updates. Do: Talk to your pediatrician and lactation consultant about healthy alternatives; such as breastmilk and introducing solids. Do: Call WIC and your pediatrician if you cannot adequately feed your baby. Don't: Buy from unverified sellers, including unknown websites, sellers in marketplace social groups, and international sellers that are not FDA approved. Don't: Pay more than the fair market price - report price gouging. Don't: Buy more than you need. Don't hoard. Don't: Use unsafe alternatives: like milk or homemade formula. Don't: dilute formula.
Baby Formula Shortage Caregiver Do’s and Don’ts

Don’t 

  • Don’t buy from unverified sellers, including unknown websites, sellers in online marketplace social groups, and international sellers that are not FDA approved. 
    • Scammers lurk at every disadvantage. Not engaging in disreputable activities and keeping scammers away will help everyone in the long run. 
  • Don’t pay more than the fair market pricereport price gouging to the Attorney General’s Office.  
    • When you pay more than the fair market price for a product, the price spikes, making products unaffordable for moderate and low-income Vermonters. Price gouging in a market emergency has repeatedly been proven as unfair and deceptive. If you notice steep increases in the price of formula in Vermont, report the store name and location, and as much identifying information about the product as you can provide, including the formula type, size, dollar amount, and the typical price, as well as a picture, if able to the Consumer Assistance Program of the Vermont Attorney General’s Office (CAP).  
  • Don’t buy more than you need. Please don’t hoard. 
    • This may prove difficult, particularly when feeding your baby is at stake. But the economics here are undeniable, if you buy more than you need now while there is a shortage, someone else will go without. It will be difficult, but please stick to the purchasing restrictions outlined by the retailers, as required by the federal government. Calendar your plan to make another formula purchase again before your supply is gone so that you don’t run out. 
  • Don’t use unsafe alternatives: like homemade baby formula, juice, cow’s milk, goat’s milk, plant-based milk, or watered down/diluted baby formula with water.  
    • Baby formula is made to simulate breastmilk with a specialized combination of vitamins and nutrients and its production is FDA monitored. While cow’s milk and other dairy alternatives are yummy for older children and adults, infant bodies can’t adequately digest food alternatives, including excess water, which provokes harm.   
Ally Do's and Don'ts. Do This: Check the stock while in a store and don't buy it. Use online social groups to keep others informed and updated on your findings. Offer to help friends by keeping them informed and buy only if you call them first and confirm they need the formula. Sign up to be a breastmilk donor at VT Donor Milk Center, or ask friends if they would like your excess supply. Don't - Not That: Don't buy formula that you do not need with the intention to donate. In doing so, you reduce available stock for caregivers. Don't offer unsolicited or unsafe advice, such as unrealistic goals for breastfeeding, or suggesting alternatives like milk. Don't show up with negativity. Caregivers and their children need positive support and valuable connection during this stressful time.
Ally Formula Shortage Do’s and Dont’s

This is indeed a stressful time. Those of us on the sidelines are eager to support caregivers and help where we can. While our first inclination may be to buy formula and donate it, this action creates a greater supply problem as it leaves less formula on the shelves for caregivers to purchase when they need it. Instead, if you notice available formula stock, call up an infant caregiver directly and ask them if they would like you to pick it up for them. Another thing you can do for your community is to crowdsource formula supply by taking note of the formula available in your local stores and sharing it with caregiver support groups online. When you notice scams or price gouging in an emergency, report it to CAP at 1-800-649-2424.  

References and Trusted Resources: 

VT Department of Health: Infant Formula Shortage – Find Help page 

White House – Biden Administration StatementsMay 22, 2022 Fact Sheet 1, May 22, 2022 Fact Sheet 2, May 18, 2022 Fact Sheet, May 12, 2022 Fact Sheet  

Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) 

Legal Authority Imposters 

You are busy in your work, helping people with critical problems when you get the call, “There is a bench warrant against you for not appearing in court.” Your first thought might be, “What does that even mean?” Your second thought: “How do I make it go away?”  

Legal Authority Scam Alert: Purports to be the police, sheriff, or other legal authority. Threatens legal action, arrest, or there's a warrant against you. Hang up on all threats and report them! Contact CAP 800-649-2424.
Legal Authority Scam Alert

The Consumer Assistance Program was recently notified about a rush of legal authority imposter scam calls reaching doctor’s offices in the Rutland area. In the scams reported, caller identification numbers were spoofed to appear as the “Rutland County Sheriff.” When doctors and staff questioned the legitimacy, they were told to “go ahead and call the sheriff directly.” When some did, the scam was confirmed. There was no bench warrant and paying these criminals on the spot would have resolved nothing anyway. 

What has been quite a surprise to these practitioners, has presented itself as one of the more common scams state-wide. In 2021, CAP recorded 277 reports of the Legal Authority Imposter Scam and nearly $200,000 in cumulative loss by six Vermonters. In this scam, a call comes in unexpectedly, claiming to be someone of legal authority: a sheriff, police officer, law office, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, for example. The caller expresses an urgent distressing problem, often threatening arrest, and eventually requests payment for the problem to go away.  

What to do?  

  • Never send callers money, especially in response to threats or claims of legal action. 
  • If you are concerned about a bench warrant, contact your legal counsel or the court directly. 
  • Hang up on all threats and report them.  

Know: 

  • If you were going to be sued, the papers would be served without notice. 
  • Harassing debt collection practice is unlawful, and collectors aren’t allowed to make claims they can’t or won’t pursue. Learn more about your rights.  
  • Learn more about the process of law to avoid scams. Most typically, if ordered to pay an amount, even by the court, there will be a clearly outlined process to follow to ensure payment goes to the right place. When a scammer claims legal action, research what it is and is not.  

What is a bench warrant? 

If you fail to show up in court when required (usually you are served notice by mail or by a Sheriff by hand delivery prior to the required court appearance), the judge may order for you to be detained or arrested. A bench warrant is more likely to be granted when a criminal defendant is on bail, or a subpoenaed witness fails to show up for trial. The bench warrant essentially orders you to go appear before the bench. (Cornell Law, nolo.com

How do I make a bench warrant go away? 

If you actually have a bench warrant against you, contact your attorney or public defender. A bench warrant calls for your appearance in court, so your appearance in court is what is necessary–and not the payment of funds like the scammers suggest.   

Stop all scams by following the SLOW Method.   

Slow Down: Scammers pressure you to act urgently. Don't! Log the Contact: Write down the info of the contact and disengage. One Call: Make one call to a primary contact and discuss the incident. Who Cares? Call CAP to identify and report scams at 1-800-649-2424.
Slow method – Slow down, take steps to verify.

Report scams to the Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) through CAP’s online scam reporting form or by calling 1-800-649-2424. Learn more about imposter scams on our imposter scam prevention video and resource page: ago.vermont.gov/imposter-scam

No More Surprise Out-of-Network Medical Bills

By Crystal Baldwin

The Consumer Assistance Program’s (CAP) top consumer complaints of 2021 ranks health/medical concerns fourth among the primary problems reported by Vermont consumers, with issues including billing and charge disputes. While the Consumer Assistance Program provides informal mediation on medical billing disputes involving providers, there are several resources available to consumers to resolve medical billing disputes, particularly if a regulated business, such as an insurance provider is involved. In the medical billing realm, consumers have earned more protections just this January through the Federal No Surprises Act, aka the “No Surprises Act” or the “No Surprise Billing Act.”

The No Surprises Act prevents surprise medical bills and has changed how unanticipated out-of-network bills can be assessed. The intention of the act is to remove the surprise that accompanies receiving large unanticipated bills after receiving health care services. There is a lot to know and there are already a number of resources to help you understand the act and your rights more thoroughly, including information on Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services websites. 

The No Surprises Act gives some medical billing control back to the consumer.

No More Surprise Medical Bills: 5 Things To Know about the No Surprises Act Taking Effect in 2022 – From HHS.gov

Key information you should know about this new law:

Who does it cover?

People covered under group and individual health plans.

What does the law provide?

Protection from receiving surprise medical bills for most:

  • Emergency services
  • Non-emergency services from out-of-network providers at in-network facilities
  • Services from out-of-network air ambulance service providers

It…

  • Bans surprise billing in private insurance for most emergency care and some instances of non-emergency care.
No Surprises Statement
No Surprises Statement
  • Requires that uninsured and self-pay patients receive key information, including overviews of anticipated costs and details about their rights.
  • Bans surprise bills for emergency care and requires that cost-sharing for these services–like co-pays—always be based on in-network rates, even when care is received without prior authorization.
  • Bans surprise bills from certain out-of-network providers if you go to an in-network hospital for a procedure; cost sharing for certain additional services during your visit will generally be based on in-network rates.
  • Requires providers and facilities to share with patients easy-to understand notices that explain the applicable billing protections and who patients should contact if they have concerns that a provider or facility has violated the new surprise billing protections.
  • Requires most providers to give a “good faith estimate” of costs before providing non-emergency care for people who do not have health insurance or pay for care on their own.
  • Protects against “Balance Billing” abuse. Balance billing is when a provider bills for the difference between the provider’s charge and the allowed amount.
  • Prohibits a preferred provider from balance billing.
  • Prevents air ambulance services from imposing cost-sharing greater than the in-network cost.

When might the law not apply?

While there are many protections in place, a patient may agree to balance billing for certain non-emergency situations, however this must be disclosed in writing and utilize a specific “Surprise Billing Protection Form.” By signing the form, patients agree to give up their federal consumer protections, agreeing to pay more for out-of-network care.

This notice and consent waiver for balance billing is NOT permitted for:

Code Blue sign in hospital
  • Emergency services
  • Unforeseen urgent medical needs arising when non-emergent care is furnished
  • Items/care related to emergency services
  • Diagnostic services including radiology and lab services
  • Out-of-network provider services when in-network providers cannot provide necessary such service

Surprise bills may continue to be issued by the following facilities:

Newborn and mother
  • Birthing centers
  • Clinics
  • Hospice
  • Addiction treatment facilities
  • Nursing homes
  • Urgent care centers (by circumstance)

What if you receive a surprise bill?

There is an independent dispute resolution process for payment disputes between plans and providers as well as new dispute resolution opportunities for uninsured and self-pay individuals.

For remaining questions about the law, visit: cms.gov/nosurprises

What about medical billing disputes not covered under the law?

For those bills that still are not covered, there are some important resources still available to consumers:

Dispute Resolution ResourceIssue
Centers for Medicare & Medicaid ServicesMedicare billing disputes
ERISAPrivate-sector/work place health benefit insurance plan disputes
Insurance Division of the Vermont Department of Financial RegulationHealth insurance billing dispute
Patient Financial Assistance Program of the provider, such as the program available at UVMMCChallenges paying valid medical bills
State Health Insurance Program (SHIP):Help understanding health insurance, including Medicare and Medicaid
Vermont Health Care Advocate (HCA) HelpLine:
1-800-917-7787  
Assistance obtaining free and lower-cost health coverage. Advice and support in solving medical billing problems, including Medicaid. Assistance deciphering health plan coverage.

As described in CAP’s blog a few years back, Navigating Health Care Can Be Tough, click the blog for even more helpful resources. Contact CAP for assistance resolving provider billing disputes.