The Awful COVID-19 Hardship Benefits and Compensation Scam

Today, our office issued a scam alert to warn about a scam that monopolizes on our COVID-19 hardship.  The email claims that the Vermont Department of Labor has recognized the difficulty the pandemic has caused and will pay $3750 starting today.  All that is needed is identity verification. What Vermont family couldn’t use this extra help?  Especially while many Vermonters enter the holiday season. 

According to a recent UVM study, 1 in 3 Vermonters are food insecure (Niles, et al. UVM).  You and I may have guessed that.  The lines at food drives and food shelves have gotten longer, not shorter.  The Everyone Eats program is overloaded with participant families.  Vermonters are hungry, in search of hope, and then in comes this email promising prosperity and money.  It is despicable.   

Just think what you could do with that money.  You could buy a traditional Thanksgiving meal at the grocery store, like you always used to. You could ensure your family is well fed over holiday breaks.  You could give your children a winter season worth remembering.   

Unfortunately, with this scam and all phishing scams, the scam keeps going once the information has been provided to the scammer.  Accounts are opened in your name without your knowledge or consent.  The scammers could even use the information they have gathered to apply for unemployment insurance benefits in your name.          

Screen capture of scam email claiming COVID-19 benefits and compensation will be issued.

The fact that a scam outfit would capitalize on the pandemic is inconceivable.  Let’s teach these scammers a lesson.  The more who know about this scam, the less will respond.  Share this information with your community and others you care about.  When you share, be sure to let others know if they receive one of these notices: 

  • Move scam emails to your junk folder.
  • Block text messages.
  • Do NOT click on any links or attachments.
  • Do NOT respond and do NOT send money.

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.  Learn more about the scam and report it to the Vermont Department of Labor:  https://labor.vermont.gov/news/ui-fraud-alert-active-phishing-attempt  

If you have basic needs that are not being met, such as access to food, warmth, and shelter, connect with your local Community Action Agency and 211.  They can help connect you to resources and assistance in your community.  

My Online Shopping Plan

Contributing Writer: Crystal Baldwin

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been buying a lot more things online than I used to. If you’re like me, you might be having a hard time keeping track of it all.  I buy things I need, but since I’m purchasing things I’d normally buy in brick and mortar retail, sometimes it’s hard to remember what I ordered and when it is supposed to arrive. There were times this summer, too, that I realized I never did receive a couple of items that I ordered.  One item had even been recorded as delivered.  I was lucky to notice so that I could rectify the issue with the vendor and recoup my funds. 

With online shopping ramping up and expected to continue to remain steady with the holiday giving season approaching, how can we be savvy online shoppers?  As I prepare for the season, I am going to follow an online shopping plan:

  1. Make a list and check it twice.—I know, but seriously.  I am going to keep a list of what I plan to buy, update when it is purchased and document where from, write down the scheduled arrival date, and write down when it arrives. I may also write where in my house I hid it.  I’ll probably keep this information in a password protected document to prevent prying eyes from seeing!
  2. Before I buy online, I will research the site thoroughly.  There are several ways to do this, some of my favorites include checking consumer complaint sites like bbb.org, yelp.com, and ripoffreport.com.  But, when I can’t find anything there, searching the business name and “complaints” or “scams” in my browser helps to locate reported consumer problems.  I’ll also ask friends about sites they have used and their experience.
  3. I won’t forget about my favorite local stores.  Many stores have moved online because of the pandemic. I’ll call local stores to double-check that they now have online ordering.  If I want items delivered, I’ll check the cost of the delivery before confirming my order.
  4. When purchasing online, I will set up an account with each vendor. I’ll use unique usernames and passwords for each site, and use strict passwords (combinations of letters–upper and lower case, numbers, and symbols, that don’t spell out a dictionary word; and absolutely is not my dog’s name).  I will use the same email address for all my online shopping though, for simplicity.—I’ll always know where to expect an order confirmation or delivery notice.
  5. I will not save my payment information on the site.  This will help protect me in case the online account is breached at a later date. 
  6. I will use a credit card for online shopping, because I know that credit cards have fraud protection and a chargeback dispute process for when items are not delivered.  Recovering funds through newer pay services such as peer to peer payments, like Venmo, Zelle, Apple/Google Pay is not so easy due to having few regulated safeguards.
  7. If a problem occurs with my order, I will reach out to the company through the portal of my online account.
  8. I won’t take the bait of emails, calls, or texts that claim there are unauthorized funds on my account, or problems with my order.  Instead, I’ll go back to the online account portal.

This last step is especially important right now.  With the general increase of online shopping, our office has documented an increase in scam reports of emails, calls, or text messages that claim credit cards have been charged large sums of money by Amazon.com and other vendors. Consumers are invited to call company support to dispute any charges that may be unauthorized.  When consumers call the number provided, they are asked to provide credit card numbers and personal information and take steps to allow remote access to computers. 

Last month, CAP was on Across the Fence talking about this important issue.  Check out the video below.   

My online shopping plan will help me to avoid scams when they crop up. I hope they help you, too. If an issue does arise, the Consumer Assistance Program is a resource to help mediate and resolve consumer transaction disputes.  We provide letter mediation.  When we receive a written complaint from you, we will reach out to the business on your behalf.  You can find our online form here: https://ago.vermont.gov/cap/consumer-complaint/

I hope you have a safe and healthy holiday season.   

Social Security Number Phishing Scams

Since August 1, the Consumer Assistance Program has received approximately 275 reports of the Social Security number phishing scam!

Here’s how the scam works:

  1. You receive a phone call 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.
  2. If you “press 1”, you are connected to a live person, who claims to be a detective or law enforcement agent. They spin a detailed story about a crime committed involving your Social Security number.
  3. Then, the scammer attempts to obtain your personal information and money. Never provide your Social Security number or bank account numbers over the phone, especially to an unknown caller.

If you receive a Social Security number phishing scam call, hang up the phone! Do not press 1 or attempt to connect to a live person.

The Social Security Administration will contact you via official letters in the mail if necessary. If you receive a call threatening arrest, it’s a scam.

Take it SLOW: Scammers 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! Remember to slow down, hang up the phone, and log the call. All it takes is one call to someone in your life to talk it through. If you still need help identifying the scam, make an additional call to someone who cares. You can always call CAP, we care and can discuss scams with you.

If you do provide personal information to the scammers over the phone, here are some proactive steps you can take to protect your information and your finances:

  1. Report the scam to CAP: (800) 649-2424 or ago.cap@vermont.gov
  2. If you provided your Social Security number to the scammers:
    1. File an identity theft report with the Federal Trade Commission and your local police.
    2. Check your credit reports and place a fraud alert or freeze on your credit.
    3. Watch out for identity theft warning signs.
  3. If you provided financial information, such as bank account numbers or credit card numbers, contact the involved financial institutions right away.
  4. If you provided the scammers with a payment via gift card, call the phone number on the back of the card.

Grandchild Imposter “Grandparent” Scam in Vermont

Contributing Writer:  Crystal Baldwin

“Grandma, it’s me, I am in prison…”
“Grandpa, I’m in the hospital. I need help…”
“Nanna and Poppa, I had a bad car accident, and people are injured…”

No matter what the scammers say when they initiate the “Grandparent Scam,” the introduction is sure to spike emotion.  That is what they hope.  They call claiming to be one of your most cherished loved ones—your grandchild—and ignite fear that those you care about are in dire need.  With emotions running high and deep, how can you not engage with the call, stay on the line, and find out more? You are worried and feel helpless because all you have to validate this story is the phone in your hand and the fear of what if.  What if you do nothing and your grandchild really was in trouble?

It is so hard.  But what if the very phone where you received the call is also what will reveal the mystery?  What if all you needed was your phone and a reminder to slow down? Would receiving this daunting call be any easier?

Today, our office issued an alert about the grandchild imposter scam, commonly referenced as the grandparent scam, because it targets grandparents and their unwavering generosity and care for their loved ones.  This scam is successful because the scammers know our grandparents care, and they know the psychology behind how difficult it is to think through problems when emotions are high.  

Infographic produced by the Consumer Assistance Program. Share it with those you care about.

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 call to your grandchild or another who can verify your grandchild’s whereabouts and well-being.

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 with your family.  Keep the SLOW reminder near your phone. With family, consider creating an uncommon family code word or PIN 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.  Act now to prevent future loss.

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

If you have lost money to this scam, please contact the Consumer Assistance Program right away at 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.

Gift Card Scams on the Rise in Vermont

Vermont Scam Alert by the Vermont Attorney General

The Consumer Assistance Program has recorded a 220% increase in gift card scams with loss reports since December.

Gift card scams take many forms; however, all request a gift card as payment and for the numbers on the back of the card to be provided to the scammer.

Be in the know:

  •    Using gift cards as payment is like sending cash.

  •    Providing the numbers on the back of the card is like giving cash:  Scammers may ask you to take pictures of the  card or relay the numbers of the phone.

  •    Scammers may say you must pay with a gift card because your credit card or another form of payment won’t work.

  •    Scammers may claim that using the gift cards will provide you certain incentives or free money opportunities.

  •    Gift cards are only valid forms of payment when used with the card’s identified retailer.

  •    Retail businesses can’t refund gift card funds that have been spent.
Gift Card Scams video produced by the Federal Trade Commission

Watch out for this and other similar scams that ask you to act quickly by providing gift card information, cash or money order, or by sending a wire transfer or peer-to-peer payment.

If you are asked to pay with a gift card, contact CAP right away at 1-800-649-2424.

Contributing Writer: Crystal Baldwin