Introducing: Romance Scam Prevention Videos

By Crystal Baldwin

Anyone who has overheard the conversation of online streaming video game players on opposite sides of the globe knows that real and true friendships can form online between parties that have never met before. As shared in the following open letter, this is how scam prevention advocate Pat McCarty’s online relationship began just two years ago.  

:30 – Avoiding the Romance Scam video. Hear the whole story at ago.vermont.gov/cap/romance-imposter

From Pat McCarty:
Until it happens to you, it’s impossible to understand; a man or woman freely sending money to someone they’ve never met in person. But I’m here to tell you, even the most cynical, worldly, educated, and discerning person can, and does, get scammed!  

There are hundreds of different scams out there, I got caught up ‘catfished’ into a ‘Romance Scam’ that crippled me financially, undermined my self-confidence, and ended up breaking my heart. I was a 58-year-old, recent divorcée after a 30 year marriage, living on my own for the first time in my life. I’m a college graduate, fairly bright, cynic, who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. But, I’m also a Christian woman, who tries to help those in need, and THAT is what my scammer preyed upon—my compassion for others.  

I was not out looking for a mate, date, or companion on some dating site. I was playing Words With Friends online, which I often did. And that is where this scammer targeted me. The conversation was very generic at first, but slowly, over weeks, developed into an online friendship. From there, it took a turn into a private chat room, and then he had me right where he wanted me! It’s a long twisting story, but ended with me selling all my gold jewelry, sending every spare cent I had to him, as these scammers are polished and sophisticated, they have a plausible story for EVERYTHING! At the point I actually sold my car, my only transportation, to “help” him. I knew I’d ‘jumped the shark,’ and started doing some digging myself!  

What I found was heartbreaking, infuriating, and devastating.  

:60 – Avoiding the Romance Scam video. Hear the whole story at ago.vermont.gov/cap/romance-imposter

That was 2 years ago. After some time, good therapy, and scam-specific education, I no longer see myself as a victim, but as a SURVIVOR! My life is mine again, my finances are healthy again, and I’ve taken back my power by volunteering at a Fraud Watch call-in center, advising others how to get out of scams like mine and so much more. With literally hundreds of scams out there, and new ones popping up daily, I’m so honored to help others get out of their scams and find THEIR power again. And, if I’ve learned anything, it’s that literally ANYONE can be scammed! I hear stories every day of those who thought it would NEVER happen to them. Knowledge is power. Learn all the red flags and warnings….BEFORE it  happens to you!  

As Pat relays, enlisting in a scam-specific education to learn more about scams in order to stop them, is the best defense against scams. Today, our office announced the release of the Avoiding the Romance Scam prevention video (embedded throughout this post in varying lengths), an effort produced here in Vermont, based on true accounts of scams experienced by our neighbors like Pat. Help protect yourself and others by taking time to watch the video. Review the information on our website and encourage those you care about to learn more about scams and prevention strategies to stop them.  

Avoiding the Romance Scam video. Learn more at ago.vermont.gov/cap/romance-imposter

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

Read more blogs about romance scams

Report Scams:  
If you or someone you know has encountered a scam in Vermont, report it. Use CAP’s online scam reporting form.   
 
Help us stop these scams by sharing this information with those you care about.  

Imposter Scams: Take Steps to Verify. Video Scam Prevention Project

By Crystal Baldwin

My fellow Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) colleagues and I have heard hundreds of personal stories from those who have experienced loss due to scams. The effects of scams are devastating and overwhelming. We understand where you are coming from when you reflect, “This just isn’t me,” after having sent thousands of dollars. We feel your confusion when you say, “I don’t know where I went wrong.” We band together to rally your call to action to “do something,” because we too “don’t want this scam to happen to anyone else.” 

In chasing the call to do something, in 2019 we applied for a grant through the Sears Consumer Protection and Education Fund to produce three scam awareness and prevention videos with a uniform message for consumers to “Know Your Relationships: Take Steps to Verify.” We were awarded this grant in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, which slowed, but could not stall our efforts in completing this important project. 

Me in character on the Twincraft Skincare set.

I wrote each script, calling on personal accounts of courageous Vermonters, who were willing to share their stories with one goal in mind: to help prevent scams from happening to others. We drew up character breakdowns, hoping for a diverse cast and put out a casting call for volunteers. In the end, we had two professional actresses, Ruth Wallman and Chloë Clark, donate their talent and expertise to the cause. For the remaining roles, we relied on our personal network of generous souls, including our Assistant Director’s son, Lars Jensen, and neighbor, Dave Saraceno. The remaining roles were brought to life by CAP personnel, Cameron Randlett, Charity Clark, and me. Without any formal acting experience, I was not first in line to fill the role, but when our casted actress relocated as our filming deadline encroached, I stepped up. We finally had a concrete filming date with a spectacular set, thanks to the kindness of Twincraft Skincare to offer up their space. I couldn’t let them or this project down.  So, I put on my actor-in-training hat and broke a couple of legs—so to speak.  

This experience, from start to release date, has reinforced my commitment to providing compassionate service to the people of our state. In completing this project, we have compiled so much more than videos and information. The videos, packaged with our online resources, equip consumers to be aware about imposter scams and apply specific mechanisms to stop scams in their tracks. I am proud of my team and the final product we present to you now. 

Throughout the month of December, we will be showcasing the three produced videos, which highlight three very common scams with dollar loss: the romance imposter scam, the family emergency/imposter scam, and the business email imposter scam. It is our hope that as each video is showcased, it will be shared widely by you. As I hoped to instill throughout this work—this information is best in the hands of everybody. Please share it

:30 – Avoiding the Romance Scam video. Hear the whole story at ago.vermont.gov/romance-imposter
:30 – Avoiding the Family Imposter Scam video. Hear the whole story at ago.vermont.gov/family-imposter
:30 – Avoiding the Business Imposter Email Scam video. Hear the whole story at ago.vermont.gov/business-imposter

Scammers are using cryptocurrency to steal your money

By Crystal Baldwin 

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. 

$80 Million Lost to Cryptocurrency Scams since late 2020 as reported by the Federal Trade Commission.
$80M Lost to cryptocurrency scams since October 2020 as reported by the Federal Trade Commission

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. 

Cryptocurrency is...Risky digital currency recorded in an online public ledger called the "blockchain"

A peer-to-peer payment method

Stored in a digital wallet (software/app) accessible to users with a computer or a mobile device

Transferred as encrypted information (called public and private keys)

Not bound by geography nor backed by government or other central bank

Anonymous, like cash transactions

Taxed as any other income
Information by ncsl.org and finra.org

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. 

Cryptocurrency scam alert: Ponzi schemes, investment scams and unlicensed sellers, stock scams, hackers and computer tech support scams
Be on the lookout for these cryptocurrency scams

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.     

Report Scams: 
If you or someone you know have encountered a scam in Vermont, report it. Use CAP’s online scam reporting form.  

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

References: Finra.org, sec.gov, investopedia.com, ncsl.org, investor.gov. fdic.gov, ftc.gov

Identity Theft and Phishing

By Crystal Baldwin

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. 

Protect yourself from Identity Theft! Safeguard your personal information.  Verify requests for information. Shred documents using a cross cutting shredder.

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. 

Protect yourself from phishing scams! Scammers claim to be someone you know. They present a problem that can only be resolved by providing personal info or money, they may contact you by phone, email, text, mail, and even social media.

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.  

Protect your Money from Scammers!

Unfortunately, many scam encounters result in monetary loss in Vermont. In 2020, 249 Vermonters lost approximately $1.5 million 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.  

Here are 5 things you can do to avoid experiencing a scam with monetary loss: 

  1. Don’t send money to someone you don’t know. This may sound simple, but it’s an important tip to remember. Take it slow. Scammers will pressure you to act quickly or face serious consequences. Do not provide unsolicited callers with your credit card or bank account numbers. If you are asked to send money via gift cards, wire transfer, cash in the mail, or peer-to-peer payment apps, it’s a scam.  
  1. Gift cards are for gifts and should be treated like cash. If you are asked to provide payment over the phone or via email using gift cards, it’s a scam. Typically, the scammer will ask you to purchase gift cards at a local grocery store or pharmacy, asking that you provide the numbers on the back of the card. In 2020, Vermonters lost approximately $128,000 to gift card scams (as reported to CAP). For more information about gift card scams, visit our Gift Card Scams blog post. 
  1. If it’s too good to be true, it’s not true. Scammers who perpetrate “free money” scams promise cash prizes, cars, and even grant funding in exchange for payment up front. Free money is always free. If you are asked to pay fees to receive a prize or grant, it’s a scam. 
  1. Scammers know exactly what to say. To get your money, scammers will often feed their victims  lines to use with bank clerks or cashiers in order to push through unusually large withdrawals, transfers, and purchases. They may ask you to say that the money is for a family member or a significant purchase to avoid suspicion from bankers and retailers.  
  1. Do not share personal or financial information with unverified contacts. Legitimate organizations and businesses will not call, email, or text you for your sensitive personal information. Scammers may claim there has been fraud and you need to verify your information – don’t take the bait. End communication with them and contact the associated business or organization using verified contact information.  

BONUS TIP: Look out for the scams below, which were associated with 95 of the 249 scam with loss reports we received in 2020: 

Imposter Scams / Phony Relationship Scams 

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. 

Online Classified Listing Scams 

The scam: Sometimes the scammer responds to a seller 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. 

For more information about avoiding monetary loss and fraud, visit the Federal Trade Commission’s website:  

Have you experienced monetary loss due to a scam? Report it to CAP:

Call (800) 649-2424 OR Complete the Vermont Attorney General’s scam reporting form

Contributing Writer: Madison Braz

Content Editor: Crystal Baldwin