TOP 10 SCAMS OF 2021 RELEASED BY THE ATTORNEY GENERAL’S OFFICE

Reports of scams to the Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) totaled 5,154 in 2021, up just slightly from the previous year’s 5,021 reports. Two variations of the Computer Tech Support scam and the Online Listing scam claimed the number one, three, and seven spots respectively on CAP’s list of top ten scams in 2021, covering nearly a quarter of the total reports filed by Vermonters. Businesses were also targeted by internet-based scams in 2021. The Business Imposter Email Scam, where scammers represent themselves as business personnel to extort funds, had 62 reports filed—a figure that did not make the top ten but notably jumped nearly 50% from the previous year.         

The prevalence of internet-based scams in 2021 sends a clear message about the importance of staying safe online in our social and work lives. If you receive a suspicious contact, whether it’s made by email, online message, or phone, know that CAP is here to help.

Vermont Attorney general t.j. donovan

Impersonation scams remain of concern, with an adapted law enforcement and lawyer imposter scam at the number four spot in 2021, threatening arrest and lawsuits on unsuspecting call recipients. The Family Emergency/Imposter scam, which includes the Grandchild Imposter also known as the “Grandparent scam” and needy friends and relatives asking for funds, made the top ten list again in 2021. A similar scam, which fabricates a romantic relationship or friendship of confidence, the Romance Imposter scam, saw a 36% increase in reports. As imposter scams are of ongoing concern in Vermont, CAP recently distributed a video imposter scam prevention project, highlighting three concerning imposter scams with high dollar loss: the Romance Imposter scam, the Family Emergency/Imposter Scam, and the Business Imposter Email Scam.

As highlighted in the prevention project, taking steps to verify can help individuals avoid scams. A simple verification process to follow for all scams is the SLOW Method:

SLOW Method
  • S – SLOW DOWN
  • Scammers pressure you to act urgently. Don’t!
  • L – LOG THE CONTACT
  • Write down the info of the contact and disengage.
  • O – ONE CALL
  • Make one call to a primary contact and discuss the incident.
  • W – WHO CARES?
  • Call CAP to identify and report scams at 1-800-649-2424.

CAP reminds Vermonters to never give out personal information or make payments to parties you cannot verify. Scammers will ask for payment in all forms, including wire transfer, cryptocurrency, cash, peer-to-peer payment, money order, check, credit/debit card, and gift cards. If you have sent money to a scammer, follow recovery steps now.

Vermonters can help stop scams by sharing information with community members and by reporting scams to CAP to support educational outreach. To report scams, complete CAP’s online scam reporting form or call 1-800-649-2424.

CAP Assistant Director on Across The Fence reviewing VT’s Top 10 Scams of 2021

The Top 10 Scams of 2021:

  1. Computer Tech Support (Variation)
  2. Social Security Number Phishing
  3. Computer Tech Support (Traditional)
  4. Legal Authority Imposter
  5. Sweepstakes/Lotteries
  6. Identity Theft
  7. Online Listings
  8. Medicare Card Phishing
  9. Family Emergency/Imposter
  10. Auto Warranty Expiration
The Top 10 Scams Reported to the Vermont Attorney General's Consumer Assistance Program in 2021
The Top 10 Scams Reported to the Vermont Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program in 2021

The scam: A variation of the traditional Computer Tech Support scam (see # 3 below). You receive an automated phone call, text message, or email claiming that you have been charged for an online order, have an outstanding balance on your account, or are sent an item you did not order. The scammer then instructs individuals to call a number provided in the scammer’s communications to get a refund or to resolve the charge. At this point, they will ask you to provide your card number to “confirm your account” or prompt you to provide them remote access to your computer. As soon as the scammer has remote access to your device, they can access every single document, file, and transaction you have saved to your device.   

How to spot the scam: Companies will not call with tech support unless you requested that they contact you. If you receive a package that you do not recall ordering, check your statement history to see if you have been charged. Packages without a return address are highly suspicious.

What to do: Hang up the phone immediately and do not call back. If you receive an email or text regarding a package delivery or order that has been made, do not click on any links. Mark the email as “Junk” or “Spam”. Furthermore, never allow remote access to your device to unknown parties. If you are concerned about charges made to your accounts, log in to your account directly and contact your financial institution. If you receive a package that you did not order, mark it return to sender and give it back to the mail carrier.

The scam: You receive a phone call (often a robocall) stating that there has been criminal or fraudulent activity involving your Social Security number. The call may even claim you will lose your benefits, or they will expire.

How to spot the scam: Social Security and other government agencies typically contact you by mail before initiating phone communication; they usually don’t call you first, you call them. They also would not threaten you for your information or payment.

What to do: Whenever you receive an unsolicited contact, take steps to verify. Never provide personal information to unknown contacts. Report robocalls to CAP for enforcement.

The scam: You receive a phone call, pop-up, or email on your computer claiming to be from Norton, Microsoft, Apple, or another well-known tech company. They will make claims such as your electronic device has a virus, your device security subscription has been automatically renewed, or stating you have been charged for services you did not receive or ask for. You may be prompted to click a link or call a number to contact. They will try to persuade you to give remote access to your device to fix the issue, and sometimes will even ask for immediate payment for their services.  

How to spot the scam: Legitimate tech support companies do not display communications to their customers as random pop-ups on your device. Tech support will not call you to warn of security incidents; that your account has been renewed for a subscription you do not recognize; and will not send you random links, often shortened, with instructions for you to click on URLs. 

What to do: When contacted about a supposed business relationship, take steps to verify, especially if you do not remember signing up for services. Never click on links or provide remote access to your computer from an unknown email sender or pop-up message on your device’s screen. If you received a pop-up message you cannot click out of, shut down, restart, or unplug your device. If you get a call from “tech support”, hang up. Also, be careful when searching for tech support online. Some users have been scammed by calling illegitimate phone numbers listed on the internet.  

  • Legal Authority Imposter

The scam: You receive a phone call unexpectedly, claiming to be a police officer, U.S. Marshall, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or an attorney with legal authority. The caller threatens arrest or pending lawsuits against you. When you engage, urgent payment is demanded to make the problem go away. Payment does not solve the supposed problem, and they keep calling. 

How to spot the scam: The police would not warn you ahead of time about a pending warrant. If you were going to be sued, the papers would be served without notice.

What to do: Know your rights. Harassing debt collection practice is unlawful, and collectors aren’t allowed to make claims they can’t or won’t pursue. Hang up on all threats and report them.

The scam: You will be notified by phone, email, or mail that you won a prize or a quantity of money. In some cases, you will even receive a realistic-looking check – but it is fake! You are instructed to pay fees and give your financial and personal information to claim your prize. They often use a legitimate sweepstakes name, like Publishers Clearing House.

How to spot the scam: Legitimate sweepstakes and contest businesses, like Publishers Clearing House and Mega Millions lottery, will contact you in person if you win a major prize. For prizes under $10,000, the notification is done through certified mail by overnight delivery services (FedEx, UPS). They will not contact you by phone, nor require a payment or processing fee to release your prize.

What to do: If it sounds too good to be true, then it’s not true. You don’t need to pay fees or give your financial information in order to claim a prize.

The scam: You receive a letter that claims you have requested government benefits, opened a bank account, filled a credit card application, or are notified about a security breach. Sometimes you will stop receiving legitimate bills and other mail or start to get bills for products and services that you didn’t pursue.

How to spot the scam: Be aware of unsolicited phone calls, mail and emails stating unexpected bank transactions, credit card or benefit applications. If your expected bills are not showing up, or you are receiving correspondence in someone else’s name, report it.

What to do: Don’t give out personal information, such as your Social Security number, passwords, personal identification numbers, and financial accounts. Review your credit reports at least once a year. Carefully check bank account statements and benefits to verify transactions. Shred documents and expired credit cards before you throw them out. Verify security breach notification letters received on the Attorney General’s website. If your information has been stolen by an identity thief, take identity theft protection steps.

The scam: Fake websites or phony listings on sites like Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist draw you into a purchase that’s likely too good to be true. This scam can also appear in online rental listings, and as a buyer offering well-over the selling price for an item. As a seller, the fake buyer sends a fake check or pays with a fraudulent credit card and asks you to advance funds to another fake vendor, causing you to be out the funds.

How to spot the scam: Be skeptical of unrealistic offers. Watch out for requests for money in any form (gift cards, wire transfers, cash) when not made in person. Scammers likely will not want to talk on the phone or meet in person. Heed warnings in user reviews and other online commentary.

What to do: Playing it safe online takes a bit of detective work to determine legitimacy of an offer. Investigate the person/profile of the seller. If their profile is new and they have no friends and photos, they are likely a scam. Research new websites you are considering doing business with by looking up online reviews and state business registrations, taking note of how long the company has been operating. Perform online searches of the business with “scam” and “complaints” to see if issues generate. Complete your transactions in cash and preferably a safe place in-person.

The scam: Scammers will call, often with a live call and from a spoofed caller ID number, and pose as Medicare representatives to gain your personal information and money. These scams are most frequent during times of open enrollment but can occur year-round. The scammers will state they need your Medicare card number or Social Security number to keep your coverage active and verify medical information. The calls may also claim that coverage is expiring or in need of renewal. Scammers will also ask if you received a “new Medicare card”, often referred to as a “gold card” or “red, white, and blue card”.

How to spot the scam: In general, Medicare cards do not expire. Unless you have called Medicare using the 800 number on the back of your card and requested a callback, Medicare will not call you. If a phone call is required, you would receive a letter from the Social Security Administration to schedule a call. Medicare representatives will never call you to verify your information, sell you products, tell you that your coverage is expiring, or to issue you a new card.

What to do: Never provide your Medicare number or other personal information and payment to unknown callers. In Vermont, representatives of the State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) at 1-800-642-5119 through local Area Agencies on Aging can help address Medicare questions. Other questions and concerns about Medicare coverage can be directed to Medicare at 1-800-MEDICARE. You may also report this scam to the Federal Trade Commission.

The scam: Scammers pose to be someone you trust and pretend to be in an emergency to convince you to send them money or will ask you for a favor. These scammers pose as grandchildren, friends, relatives, and close contacts and seem like the real deal. Scammers impersonate people you love and play on your fears to have you send money urgently. After the initial call, you may be told a lawyer, parole officer or courtroom may contact you for further information.

How to spot the scam: Contacts come in as calls or emails or online messages. Sometimes it’s someone you haven’t heard from in a while. They require urgency and ask for secrecy. You may not be allowed to speak to your loved one on the phone.

What to do: Take steps to verify. Check out if they really are who they say even if they sound like a loved one. Slow down your response and contact someone you trust to verify if there is an emergency. You can also choose a “code word” with friends and family to verify the person is who they claim to be. If they don’t know the word, they are not your friend or family member.

  • Auto Warranty Expiration

The scam: You receive a call or mail from fake representatives of auto dealers, manufacturers, and insurance companies, trying to convince you to renew your auto warranty or insurance or claim your warranty is expired. You may be instructed to press a number or stay on the line for a representative that seems like a real person. When contacted by these scammers, you may be asked personal information about yourself and your vehicle or financial information to pay off this fake claim.

How to spot the scam: Be mindful that only a vehicle’s manufacturer can extend factory warranties, not an outside company. Avoid any call or mailing that states it’s urgent for you to take immediate action to continue your car’s warranty.

What to do: If you have inquiries on your vehicle or its warranty, call the number on your purchase paperwork. You can also contact the dealership you purchased the vehicle from to inquire about the warranty as well. Hang up on or discard any suspicious mailing or person claiming to know about your auto warranty. Do not provide any personal or identifying information unless you can verify you are dealing directly with a verified company that you have a business relationship with.

Introducing: Business Imposter Email Scam Prevention Videos

By Crystal Baldwin 

Businesses get scammed by imposters, too. This notion was news to me when my office received our first business imposter email scam report about five years ago. A small law firm had transferred $30,000 as directed to do so in an email. In yet another scam involving a real estate law office, it was more than $100,000 of the seller’s money that had been unwittingly transferred to a scam account. 

:30 – Avoiding the Business Imposter Email Scam. Hear the whole story at ago.vermont.gov/cap/business-imposter

We’ve heard from a retailer, who was in the process of completing their annual supply order: a container of supplies for the holiday season, with their supplier in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong supplier’s email was hacked, and the Vermont small business responded to a valid email address of the supplier to provide updated account information—to a scammer. Charities and small membership organizations have been subjects of this scam as well. 

Recently, we heard from a nurse, who, with kind intentions to appreciate fellow frontline workers purchased gift cards as suggested by their supervisor in an email, was responding to a business imposter email scam. 

In each of these scams, the personnel involved were simply following standard operating procedure: you get an email from a figure of authority to complete a financial transaction, and you do. It is easy to assume that this kind of scam won’t happen to you or your business, but with ever-evolving technology and growing capability of scammers to deceive, it is becoming more important for businesses to be on the lookout for and arm against scams.  

:60 – Avoiding the Business Imposter Email Scam video. Hear the whole story at ago.vermont.gov/cap/business-imposter

Whether an email system is hacked and the scammer takes control to send out the transfer request, or a scammer creates a fake account email with all the boss’ credentials, these emails appear as though they are coming from a legitimate source within the business.  

  • Often, when using mobile email services, only the email sender’s name is plainly visible, rather than the entire email address. So, if the email address is “yourboss@yahoo.com,” you don’t see the Yahoo account extension unless you click on the email.   
  • Another tactic scammers use is copying the signature block of the person of authority. Scammers can easily copy signature blocks used in external out-of-office autoreply messages by receiving a reply message that includes the signature block. All the scammer had to do was send an email to get the autoreply with the signature block.  

There are countless ways in which scammers can infiltrate business systems. Businesses can never be too cautious in protecting themselves and their customers from scams. In an effort to help businesses prevent scams from derailing operations, we produced the Avoiding the Business Imposter Email Scam videos and toolkit, which includes scam warnings and actual steps that businesses can take to verify funds transfer requests.  

Avoiding the Business Imposter Email Scam video. Learn more at ago.vermont.gov/cap/business-imposter

Learn more at ago.vermont.gov/cap/business-imposter 

Get more information for businesses from the Consumer Assistance Program

Report Scams:  

If you or someone you know has encountered a scam in Vermont, report it. Use the Consumer Assistance Program’s online scam reporting form. 

Help us stop these scams by sharing this information with your colleagues and business personnel. 

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.

Event Cancellation Guidance

As a result of the COVID-19 emergency, countless Vermonters have dealt with the cancellation of travel plans and other event reservations. Although disappointing, these cancellations are helping keep the public safe and slow the spread of the virus. To assist Vermont consumers and businesses in understanding their rights and responsibilities related to these canceled plans, the Attorney General’s Office offers the following guidance:

Step 1: Look at the contract or agreement

  • To determine whether a business must refund a consumer’s payment, read any cancellation policies or other similar terms in any contracts or agreements that were in place at the time of payment.

Step 2: Locate cancellation policies

  • If a properly disclosed cancellation policy states that some or all of a consumer’s payment may be non-refundable, consumers’ options may be limited.
  • If a cancellation policy is not properly disclosed – for example, because it was given to the consumer only after the contract or agreement was signed – then the cancellation policy may not be valid.

Step 3: If necessary, the Consumer Assistance Program is available to mediate

  • If a cancellation policy says that a consumer is entitled to a refund in the event of an involuntary cancellation but the business refuses to provide a refund, the consumer may file a complaint with the Consumer Assistance Program by calling 1-800-649-2424 or visiting https://ago.vermont.gov/cap/.
  • If there are no contract terms or other policies that apply to cancellations under circumstances like these, the Attorney General’s Office urges businesses to work with consumers to find acceptable solutions. While it may be reasonable for a business to keep some portion of its fees to cover costs that were actually incurred before cancellation, businesses should work with consumers to come to a satisfactory resolution for both parties.
  • Like individual consumers, businesses also may have protections when they are in the role of consumers. For example, a business is a consumer when they are purchasing items that are not for resale, such as supplies or equipment for use by their business. If you own a business and have a consumer-type problem, you can also contact the Consumer Assistance Program to file a complaint.

The Attorney General’s Office recognizes that Vermonters are facing unprecedented hardships at this time, and encourages business owners and consumers to work together to find reasonable resolutions of their disputes. If any consumer feels a business is not living up to the terms of their agreement or is otherwise not playing fair, they should contact the Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program to file a complaint by calling 1-800-649-2424 or visiting https://ago.vermont.gov/cap/.

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

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.