BURLINGTON – The Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) is warning Vermont business owners, non-profits, and employees about an uptick in business imposter email scams. In the last two months, CAP has received five reports of business imposter email scams resulting in a total loss of $210,799. Scammers are impersonating employees or familiar business representatives’ emails and contacting company bookkeepers and office administrators asking them to change bank account information, direct deposit information, or asking them to write checks. By impersonating an employee’s email address or creating a fake personal email for the employee, scammers can steal money from businesses and steal paychecks from employees.
Vermont businesses and non-profits should always verify email addresses and speak directly with an employee or business representative in person or via phone when sending money or changing payment information. Oftentimes, scammers will use an email address that only slightly varies from an employee’s true email. Be wary of any email coming from outside your company’s domain. CAP urges business owners to educate their entire company on scams that target businesses.
Here are ways in which businesses and non-profits can better protect themselves and their employees from scams:
Cybersecurity assessment: check internal controls and resolve vulnerabilities.
Train staff regularly in cybersecurity and funds management protocols.
Enlist internal protocols to verify the transfer of funds by engaging multiple staff members and voice verification, using trusted contact information.
Help clientele identify common scams within the industry.
TheSLOW method can serve as a helpful starting point, encouraging parties to take their time during urgent transactions and connect with a trusted party like CAP.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 “email@example.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.
“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.
If you are contacted by one of these scams:
Hang up! Do not engage with the scammer and do not call them back.
Do not provide any personal information
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
S – Slow down. The
scammers urge you to act urgently. Don’t.
L – Log
the call. For your assurance, write down the phone number of the caller
and hang up.
O – One call. Make a verification call to the business, using a number you know and trust.
W – Who
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.
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/.