Recently, three Vermonters reported losing just under $1 million in total to cryptocurrency scams. Entire retirement accounts were drained, and because of early withdrawal penalties, thousands of dollars are due to the IRS. Some owe family members for funds borrowed on the chance that cryptocurrency would substantially increase their investment.
As a peer-to-peer spending source, every type of scam could at any point use cryptocurrency as the preferred form of payment, over gift cards, wire transfers, and cash, for example. According to the Federal Trade Commission, cryptocurrency scams have been increasing since 2017 and “skyrocketed” at the end of 2020 (ftc.gov).
So, what is cryptocurrency? In very basic terms, it’s virtual money that uses its own currency, or monetary system. When we usually think of currency, it’s affiliated with a specific country, has an exchange rate and is produced as banknotes and coins known as fiat currency. The money in a U.S. bank account will note an amount in U.S. dollars, for example. Cryptocurrency is usually unaffiliated with a particular country, maintaining its own exchange rate. As such, cryptocurrency is not backed by any government or other central bank (ncsl.org) like we are used to with US banks which are FDIC insured—insurance that protects your money from bank failure.
How is cryptocurrency used? To spend using cryptocurrency, a user needs a digital wallet accessible through software or an app and some funds to deposit to convert into cryptocurrency, such as Bitcoin. There are many different cryptocurrencies, affiliated applications/websites. Not all cryptocurrencies are the same and, unfortunately, some are entirely fake.
When transferring, your funds are assigned a unique password that is required to move funds. As such, the transfer of funds happens instantly, with little federal oversight or regulation, making cryptocurrency the currency of choice for fraudsters.
Cryptocurrency is the preferred payment method of scammers. Any type of scam can manifest with crypto being the scammer’s preferred mode of transfer. Scammers like cryptocurrency, because, unlike with traditional bank transfers and transfers done by a money transmitter (like Western Union and Money Gram), there is no third-party banking institution involved in the transfer. The transfer itself is peer-to-peer and performed with a unique encryption code (in simple terms, think of the best password you have ever set eyes on). This means, if you have money in bitcoin and the receiving party receives your encryption code, now the receiving party has your money. All cryptocurrency transactions that are completed on the blockchain are irreversible and funds cannot be recovered.
The exchange of funds happens instantaneously, virtually and globally, making the jurisdiction of the monetary exchange difficult to determine. Even if the receiver says they are in the U.S., you will not be able to verify this claim.
Is Cryptocurrency an investment or a scam—an investment scam, or something else? According to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), cryptocurrency is a “highly speculative investment” and the “Bitcoin futures market should be pursued only by mutual funds with appropriate strategies that support this type of investment” (sec.gov). A speculative investment is one with a high degree of risk with hopeful long term gains.
There are a number of fake and a number of honestly operating cryptocurrency investment firms. There remains little regulation in the field. The SEC indicates, “While these digital assets and the technology behind them may present a new and efficient means for carrying out financial transactions, they also bring increased risk of fraud and manipulation because the markets for these assets are less regulated than traditional capital markets” (sec.gov). The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) echoes that “The markets for cryptocurrencies remain highly volatile and risky.” To learn more about cryptocurrency markets and products, review the helpful resources on the FINRA website.
More to consider: As an entirely digital currency, all access points are digital. Individual accounts can be hacked and cryptocurrencies themselves are not foolproof. When a cryptocurrency’s system is breached, millions of dollars are lost, as demonstrated in breaches; Bithumb lost $30 million, Coinrail lost $37.2 million, BitGrail lost $195 million, and Coincheck lost $534 million (investopedia.com).
A person that opts to use cryptocurrency must ensure their account is protected and secure against the most determined hacker. Even still, there are ways that scammers can obtain direct access to your digital accounts. Through a convincing tech support scam, they claim there is a problem with your account that must be solved, and you sign them in, allowing them access to everything. Another easy route is with a simple click of the mouse, the computer can be infected with viruses, opening the virtual door for your computer and accounts on it to be susceptible to scams.
Without proper security, ensuring your systems will not be breached, one simple hack can risk your entire cryptocurrency account. With this in mind, digital currency may not be the right choice for someone who sets easy passwords, performs few antivirus checks, or is a carefree web user.
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.
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.
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.
Vermonters filed 5,021 scam reports with the Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) in 2020. The Social Security number phishing scam, which typically involves calls claiming that your Social Security number has been compromised, suspended, or linked to criminal activity, remained the most commonly scam for the second year in a row with 1,160 reports filed. Claiming the number two spot on the list of top ten scams in 2020 were “free money” scams. Six-hundred-eighty-three Vermonters reported receiving “free money” scam calls where they were told that they had won a prize or money and needed to pay fees or taxes upfront to collect. With scam attempts remaining high, Attorney General T.J. Donovan urges Vermonters to Take it Slow: scammers will pressure you to act fast, demanding personal information and payment, while threatening extreme consequences if you do not comply. Don’t let them pressure you!
“If you get a suspicious call, remember to slow down, hang up the phone, and take notes on the interaction,” warned Attorney General Donovan. “If you still need help identifying if something is a scam, call us at CAP at 800-649-2424.”
Unfortunately, many scam encounters result in monetary loss in Vermont. In 2020, 249 Vermonters lost approximately $1.5 million, in total, to scammers. The most common scams associated with monetary loss were imposter scams (scammers posing as friends, family members, or romantic interests) and online classified listing scams (scams perpetrated on sites such as Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace). Scammers ask their victims to send money using a variety of methods, including gift card transactions, peer-to-peer payments apps like Venmo or CashApp, wire transfers, and cash or checks in the mail.
Vermonters can report a scam or sign up for the Scam Alert system by going to ago.vermont.gov/cap or by calling the Consumer Assistance Program at 1-800-649-2424.
The scam: You receive a phone call (usually a robocall) stating that there has been criminal or fraudulent activity involving your Social Security number. The scammer may also claim to be a government agency or law enforcement, threatening arrest or serious consequences. The scam often begins as a robocall.
How to spot the scam: If Social Security (or any official agency) wanted to contact you, they would not call to ask for your personal information, especially your Social Security number, over the phone. These agencies mail communications and would never threaten you for information or payment over the phone.
What to do: Be wary when responding to unsolicited contacts and never provide personal information to unknown contactors, especially over the phone.
The scam: You receive a phone call, email, or mailing that claims you have won money or a prize—but there’s a catch: you have to pay money up front for taxes or fees. Sometimes the outreach includes a realistic-looking fake check. The check bounces and no “winnings” are ever dispersed. Often, they claim to be Publishers Clearing House. Scammers may also claim to offer government grants or stimulus money, getting touch via social media.
How to spot the scam: If you actually win a major prize from Publishers Clearing House, they will contact you in person. For smaller prizes (less than $10,000), winners are notified by overnight delivery services (FedEx, UPS), certified mail, or email in the case on online giveaways. They never make phone calls. An unsolicited check in the mail from an unknown sender is usually a scam.
What to do: If it sounds too good be true, then it’s not true. Never pay an upfront fee to receive winnings or a grant. If you win something, they will pay you – not the other way around. No actual contest or sweepstakes would you make you pay first to receive money.
Amazon and package deliveries phishing
The scam: An automated phone call or email claiming that your credit card has been charged by Amazon or that you have an outstanding balance on your account. The scammer instructs people to call them to get a refund or resolve the charge, at which point they request your card number and attempt to gain remote access to your computer. You might also receive a text message or email claiming that you have a package, but they need to verify your information.
How to spot the scam: Amazon will not call you unless you request that they do so. If you have legitimate concerns about your Amazon account, or other accounts, contact the company directly through a trusted contact, such as through the customer portal within your account.
What to do: Hang up the phone and do not call back. Furthermore, you should not allow remote access to your computer to unknown parties. If you are concerned about charges made to your credit card, contact your credit card company directly. If you receive a text regarding a package delivery, don’t click any links or reply.
The scam: A phone call or pop-up message on your computer claiming to be from Microsoft, Apple, or another well-known tech company. They will say there is a virus or other problem with your computer and try to persuade you to give them remote access to resolve the issue. They may also ask for immediate payment for their services.
How to spot the scam: Legitimate customer service information usually won’t display as a pop-up. Companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Google do not call you to notify you of malware on your computer.
What to do: Never provide remote access to your computer to a stranger or click links from an unknown sender in an e-mail or pop-up message. If you get a call from “tech support,” hang up. Also, be careful when searching for tech support numbers online. Some users have been scammed by calling illegitimate numbers for legitimate companies.
The scam: There is a wide variety of phony relationship scams. Sometimes, the scammer pretends to be someone you know, like a love interest, friend, relative, or even a religious leader. They typically reach out to you online or on the phone, claiming to need money.
How to spot the scam: They ask you to send money immediately, often in the form of wire transfers or gift cards. If you met the person online, but they refuse to video-chat or talk on the phone.
What to do: If they claim to be someone you know, call the person using a verified phone number. If you receive a suspicious email, be sure to double-check the email address. If you’re feeling suspicious, get the real story and talk to someone you trust. Cut off communication with the scammer. If you receive an email from a friend or coworker asking for money, do not send money. Be sure to call that person directly—it’s most likely a scam.
The scam: Scammers pose as debt collectors or law enforcement and say legal action will be taken against you if you don’t pay them what you owe. Some may claim to be familiar businesses or the government, such as utility companies or the IRS.
How to spot the scam: If you did owe a debt, collectors are not allowed to threaten you with arrest over the phone. You can request verification of the debt, which has to be sent to you in writing. If you ask them to stop calling you, they are generally required to stop.
What to do: Hang up the phone, and if they call again, let the call go to voicemail. If you think you do actually owe money to a debt collector or other agency, make sure you call using a trusted number.
The scam: Sometimes the scammer responds to a seller’s post, overpays with a check, and asks for the remainder to be wired back. Sometimes the post is for a fictitious rental property and the scammer is looking for the deposit and first month’s rent to be sent immediately. Scams even happen when you are looking for that perfect puppy or pet to expand your family, but the transport of the animal is supposedly held up at the airport or elsewhere.
How to spot the scam: If you feel suspicious, stop the sale or purchase. The scammer may ask you to wire them money, send a bank transfer, or pay using gift cards. They may not want to talk on the phone or meet in person. Remember, you should not provide a rental deposit before signing the lease or contract in-person.
What to do: Complete your transactions in cash and preferably in-person. If they refuse to meet in-person or talk on the phone, ignore them and end communication.
The scam: You receive an email that threatens exposure of compromising home video and pictures, unless you pay, usually in Bitcoin. The email claims you have been hacked and may reference a current or former password you may have used. The sender claims that they have access to your computer and webcam and threatens to release embarrassing photos and video unless you send them money.
How to spot the scam: The scammer is using scare tactics to make you act fast. Don’t take the bait! The email message will often include threats and hurtful language.
What to do: Do not reply to the email or click on any links or attachments included on the message. Do not send money. If you find that your current password is listed in the email, change your passwords from another computer and run virus scans. Delete the email or add it to your spam/junk folder.
The scam: Scammers pose as grandchildren and claim to be in serious trouble, such as in prison or at the hospital. They urgently request money in the form of wired funds or prepaid gift cards. They may also claim that their voice sounds unfamiliar due to injury. After the initial call, they may claim you will be hearing from an attorney or officer.
How to spot the scam: Call your grandchild or family members on known phone numbers to ensure your grandchild is safe.
What to do: Never wire or otherwise send funds unless you can verify the emergency. Take it slow and contact someone you trust.
Bank/financial institution phishing
The scam: You receive an email or phone call claiming to be from a bank. Emails might claim that your account is in danger or has been suspended, or that your card is on hold due to suspicion activity. The email also includes links to phony websites. Phone calls may claim that there has been fraudulent activity involving your account, and the scammers demand personal information about you and your account.
How to spot the scam: Scammers mask their actual identity by changing the sender name to the name of the financial institution. Look at the email address before opening the email. You will often find an account not affiliated with your bank. Similarly, scammers can spoof phone numbers of financial institutions. If you answer a call that appears to be from your bank and they ask for your personal and/or account information, hang up and call your bank directly on a number you trust to verify their attempt to contact you.
What to do: Do not reply to the email or click on any links or attachments included on the message. If you receive a call, hang up the phone. To correspond directly with your bank or financial institution, use verified contact information, such as information listed on your statement.
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?
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.
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:
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.