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

Medical Cancer Swab Screening Scam

Consumers have reported receiving calls or online solicitations for free medical cancer screening kits in exchange for Medicare information. While cheek swabs are used in common screenings for illnesses and genetics, unprompted and unsolicited calls or online advertisements for free cancer screening kits are a scam.

Phone. Often this scam begins with a phone call, letting consumers know that their doctor has referred them for a free cancer screening kit. The caller then asks for Medicare information, claiming their insurance will cover the kit. The cancer screening kit does normally arrive at the home of the consumer but it typically does not go to a cancer screening facility, or if it does, consumers are required to pay out of pocket.

Internet. This scam can also originate as an online advertisement. The advertisement will state consumers can receive a free cancer screening kit. Clicking on the advertisement will bring consumers to a separate page to provide contact information as well as insurance and Medicare accounts.

Medical swab and screening scams poster

Signs to spot a cancer screening scam:

  1. An unsolicited phone call or internet advertisement stating qualifications have been met for a free cancer screening kit.
  2. The products claim Medicare or other insurance providers will cover the cost.
  3. Often described as free in exchange for Medicare information
  4. The seller claims a doctor has approved a referral for the cancer screening kit.
  5. Personal identifiable information (Medicare information, Social Security Number, Date of Birth) is requested.

Never provide personal information over the phone or online if you’re unsure where this information is going or you were contacted without request. If you receive a cancer screening device without requesting one or provided your Medicare information to an unknown scammer, call Medicare right away to report fraud at 1-800-MEDICARE.

If you or anyone you know has engaged with a scam, please contact the Consumer Assistance Program at 800-649-2424.

Contributing Editor:  Alexandra Esposito
Content Editor:  Crystal Baldwin

Sources: AARP
Medicare
OIG Department of Health and Human Services

Recognizing Government Impersonation Scams

It can be intimidating to receive phone calls that claim to be from the government. Some of these calls can be threatening, while others offer false opportunities for government grants or entitlements. Calls and scams impersonating the government have been on the rise since 2014. The IRS scam, impersonating the Internal Revenue Service, has ranked as the number one reported scam in Vermont since, making up 41% of the top scams reported to CAP in 2018. Last year, the social security number phishing scam (SSN), impersonating the Social Security Administration, was the second highest reported scam, making up 18% of the top scams. Together, the two government imposter scams were 59% of the top scams reported in Vermont. This year, the SSN scam is on track to be number one, with 755 already reported to CAP. Recognize common government impersonation scams.

SSN Phishing and IRS Scams

Identify It: Scammers claiming to be government offices, like Social Security Administration or the Internal Revenue Service may claim your SSN has been compromised, or that you have back taxes.

What to Know: It is important to remember that these government agencies would never contact you over the phone or through email. These agencies mail communications and would never threaten you for information or payment over the phone.

Treasurer’s Office Scam

Identify It: Government scams can come in many different forms other than the well-known IRS and SSN scam. Recently, CAP has been notified about a scam call that claims to be from the State Treasurer and that the recipient owes money related to student loan debt.

What to Know: Spot this scam by looking out for debt calls that threaten legal action if payment information is not given.

Government Grant Scam

Identify It: Sometimes, government impersonators claim that you are eligible for a federal grant. They say things like, “Because you do not owe back taxes, you qualify for a government grant.”

What to Know: If you did not apply for a grant, you shouldn’t be contacted.  You would never have to pay for fees or taxes before receiving a grant. Watch out for false claims that you are entitled to something that you never knew about.

Spoofing Government Numbers

Identify It: Scammers may sometimes use technology known as spoofing. This is when they mask their actual phone number so that your caller ID will show you a different number entirely.

What to Know: Sometimes they will use this to make their number look like they are coming from your area code, while other times the caller ID on your phone may even show as “US Government,” “IRS,” or “SS administration”.

If you suspect that you are being targeted by a scam, the best thing you can do is not respond. If you answered the phone, then hang up. If you have been emailed, do not respond. Do not call back any numbers that you are given. Never give out your personal or financial information to an unknown party claiming to be the government. If you are worried that some claims may be legitimate, call the department directly, using a number you know to be valid.

If you would like to report a scam or have any questions, please reach out to CAP by calling us at 1-800-649-2424 or emailing AGO.CAP@Vermont.gov

For more information about government imposter scams, please check out the FTC’s guide on how to recognize these scams and tips on combatting them: https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0048-government-imposter-scams

Contributing Writer:  Mollie Shea Feeley
Content Editor: Crystal Baldwin

Sources:
https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0048-government-imposter-scams
https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/blog/2019/07/whos-pretending-be-government-now
Infographic source: https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0519-irs-imposter-scams-infographic)

Help Stop Service Member Charity Scams

Scammers will say just about anything to get your money! Unfortunately, this includes pretending to be charities. For Military Consumer Month, we’d like to share some information about how you can securely give to legitimate charities who support our service members, and avoid scams.

For more information, watch and share this video produced by the Federal Trade Commission: https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/audio-video/video/stop-veteran-charity-scams

If you receive a charity solicitation over the phone, ask questions!

As noted in our post from November 2018, it’s important to do your homework before giving. Here are some steps you can take:

  1. Research the cause before donating. Helpful websites, like Charity Navigator and the Better Business Bureau’s Giving Wise Alliance (BBB), have information on charities.
  2. Double-check solicitation mailing addresses and phone numbers. Ask fundraising callers to mail you the solicitation first, so that you can check the contact information.
  3. Look for paid fundraiser information. A paid fundraiser is a third-party solicitation company that, aside from the fundraising campaign, is not affiliated with the charity.  This means that a portion of the funds raised are split between the charity and the soliciting business.  Vermonters can ask if a third-party fundraiser is involved. For information about paid fundraisers, see the “Charities” section on the CAP website.
  4. Still unsure?  If you receive a solicitation that seems suspicious, but just aren’t sure, give the Consumer Assistance Program a call: (800) 649-2424. We’re happy to help.

Contributing Writer: Madison Braz
Content Editor: Crystal Baldwin

Resources: Federal Trade Commission