An Etched Lesson in Car Buying

By Crystal Baldwin

When I searched to purchase my first used car as a freshly licensed teenager in the late ‘90’s, I was fortunate to have an experienced mechanic and negotiator with me.  Our first stop was a used car dealership that was holding a huge blowout event complete with flag garland and free large-print calculators and five salespeople per customer.   I can remember the swarm of eager dealers approaching to this day. We showed up in our ten-year-old Ford LTD.  One salesman approached so daringly that he might have opened the door for me had I not willingly exited the vehicle.  My dad held up the flyer he received at home as he promptly asked about the promised freebie.  The dealer took the flyer from his hand and then pointed to a long line.  He advised us to look at cars while we waited.   

An etched lesson in car buying at blog.uvm.edu/cap

I wanted something simple.  The criteria I stated was, “Four doors and not a hatchback.”  It went without saying that I wanted a reliable car to get me around town to my job and all my activities.  We were led to a seven-year-old white Ford Tempo marked $2,000. For all appearance purposes, it seemed perfect.  I could see myself driving that kind of car.  While the dealer encouraged us to buy it based on price alone, my dad pushed back as if speaking straight from a consumer protection advice manual, “We aren’t putting any money down without thoroughly looking it over and having a test drive.” 

That’s when he crouched down in the crowded dealer lot, nearly pushing his entire body under the car.  From what he could see externally, it looked good enough for a drive, but confirmed that we wouldn’t have a clear sense of the car until it was put up on a lift.  Then, I drove it.  It handled okay in the lot and on the main road.  But, when the dealer called from the back seat for me to take a right turn on another neighborhood road, my dad advised me to take a left onto the thruway.  The car could not reach highway speed and sounded as though it might combust at any moment.  “How does it feel?” my dad asked.

I called back in my loudest octave, “Like it doesn’t want to go anywhere.”  

He followed, “Do you want this car?”  

“No,” I said flatly.   

He turned to the dealer, “We won’t be buying this car.” 

When we got back to the dealership, we quickly got out and were ready to leave, but my dad still wanted his calculator. The salesman said he would go get it.  When he came back, he did not bring the calculator.  Instead, he brought three more salesmen that encircled us with shaming jabs aimed at my father that he was letting me down.  While my heart raced with anxiety and anger, my dad remained calm.  At one point, I heard my dad reply, “I can’t believe you are selling this car.  It sounds like it could break at any minute.  I am not letting my daughter in that thing again.”  By the end of their banter, we walked away with three things:  

  1. My dad was offered a job at the dealership—he did so well saying “No” they wanted him to work for them.  
  2. A large-print calculator (My dad did not stop asking for it).   
  3. An etched lesson: Purchasing a quality used car is best done with backup and calm shrewdness. 

Car buying is something most of us will do only a handful of times in our lives.  How can we properly prepare for the moment we come face to face with a car seller?  While you may not have the benefit of having my father present, there are some things consumers can do to prepare for the big purchase.  The Consumer Assistance Program’s Assistant Director Lisa Jensen recently appeared on Across the Fence to share car buying tips.   

Across the Fence 10/15/2021 – Car Buying Tips from the Vermont Attorney General’s Office

Here are some of the used car purchasing tips highlighted in the show: 

  • Secure financing ahead of time. 
  • Do thorough research on the make/model of the car; search reliability and ratings. 
  • Look up the Kelly Blue Book and NADA and online marketplace values 
  • Check out similar vehicles at multiple dealerships
  • Scrutinize the car: Test drive, get an independent pre-purchase mechanical inspection 
  • Look for the Buyer’s Guide and decipher warranty information; there may be none. 

Buying a car can be complex, time consuming, costly, and emotionally taxing.  Because buying a car is not something we do frequently, having a supportive person present who understands your financial picture and supports your interests can be beneficial.  If you are in the market for a car, consider bringing a trusted companion with you to the sale, such as a friend/family member, who understands your financial picture and supports your interests. 

The Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) is another resource that you can call for tips before car buying.  If you do experience a problem with the purchase of a dealer purchased vehicle, new or used, CAP provides a letter mediation service for Vermonters and works in partnership with the Vermont Auto Dealers Association’s mediation/arbitration program.  

Did I ever get my first car?  Why, yes.  Yes, I did.  It took another week or two, but in time, we found the perfect car for me for half the price.  A metallic blue Mercury Topaz—the off-brand twin of the Ford Tempo.  A test drive and thorough check-up proved the car to be a worthy fit for me.  After many reliable miles, the car was repurposed for parts in the early 2000’s.    

Best friend riding in style in my Mercury.
My best friend riding in style in my Mercury. Circa 1998.

Vermont’s Top Ten Scams of 2020

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 top 10 scams of 2020 are

  1. Social Security number phishing 
  1. Free money 
  1. Amazon and package deliveries phishing 
  1. Computer tech support 
  1. Phony relationships (not grandchild) 
  1. Debt collection  
  1. Online classified listings 
  1. Extortion emails 
  1. Grandchild imposter 
  1. Bank/financial institution phishing 
Vermont’s Top Ten Scams of 2020 by the Consumer Assistance Program of the Vermont Attorney General’s Office and the University of Vermont
  1. Social Security number phishing 

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.  

  1. Free money 

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. 

  1. 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.  

  1. Computer tech support 

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. 

  1. Phony relationships 

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. 

  1. Debt collection 

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. 

  1. Online classified listings 

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. 

  1. Extortion emails 

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. 

  1. Grandchild imposter 

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.  

  1. 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. 

Don't Get Scammed: Slow Down and Follow A Plan: Slow Down, Log the Call, make One Call to a primary contact, report to Who Cares; CAP cares, call 800-649-2424.
Don’t get scammed, slow down and follow a plan. SLOW method by the Consumer Assistance Program.

Together, We Can Eliminate Elder Abuse

Nationally, of the 60+ age cohort, 1 in 10 adults experience some form of mistreatment each year.”[1] National Center on Elder Abuse

For every case of reported elder abuse, neglect or exploitation, about 23 instances go unreported.”[2] VT Attorney General’s Office and the Department of Aging and Independent Living

Elder abuse occurs in many forms: physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, neglect, abandonment and financial exploitation.  Elder abuse can occur in any setting and can be by a person or entity.  There could be a preexisting relationship of trust—and in most cases victims know their abuser—or a connection can be new.[1]

Each of us can play an important role in preventing elder abuse.  The first step is recognizing and identifying signs of abuse.  These steps are outlined by the Attorney General’s Elder Protection Initiative and the Department of Aging and Independent Living in this linked release commemorating World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.

Knowing how to contact the agencies and organizations that can assist is essential to eliminating elder abuse.  To simplify the reporting process, the following is a list of resources.

REPORT CONTACT
Life-threatening
situation
911
Suspected elder
abuse, neglect or
exploitation, including
financial exploitation
Local Police and
Adult Protective Services of the
Dept. of Aging and Independent
Living (800-564-1612), if about a
vulnerable adult
Abuse of a person
living in a nursing
home, assisted living
facility, or board and
care home
Long Term Care Ombudsman of VT
Legal Aid (800-889-2047)
Concerns regarding
licensed health care
facilities
Survey and Certification of the
Dept.of Aging and
Independent Living
(888-700-5330)
Domestic Violence VT Network
Domestic Violence Hotline
(800-228-7395)
Sexual Violence VT Network Sexual Violence Hotline
(800-489-7273)
Misuse of Social
Security
Benefits
Social Security Administration
Office of the Inspector General
(800-772-1213)
Medicaid Fraud and
Abuse
VT Attorney General’s
Medicaid Fraud Unit (802-828-5511)
Unauthorized Real
Estate Transfers
Vermont Legal Aid (802-775-0021)
Broker and Investment Advisor Fraud Dept. of Financial Regulation:
Securities Division (802-828-3420)
Bank Fraud Dept. of Financial Regulation:
Banking Division (888-568-4547)
Insurance Agent,
Adjuster, or
Carrier Fraud
Dept. of Financial Regulation:  
Insurance Division (800-964-1784)
Scams and
Identity Theft and
Consumer Fraud
VT Attorney General’s
Consumer Assistance Program
(800-649-2424)


If you are still not sure who to contact, call United Ways of Vermont 2-1-1 information and referral hotline (dial 211 or 802-652-4636).  They are a great resource, connecting Vermonters to organizations and agencies.  They have committed to enhancing their referral work specifically for calls related to elder abuse and exploitation.

We can all commit to ending elder abuse by serving those in our communities that may be preyed upon.  Here, at the Consumer Assistance Program, to help prevent financial exploitation in scams, we distribute scam alerts and encourage recipients to share the information with friends, neighbors and loved ones.  Anyone can sign up by calling us at 800-649-2424, or by visiting our website ago.vermont.gov/cap/stopping-scams.  The Elder Protection Initiative has even more information on how you can help on the Get Involved page.

More Resources:  
WEAAD: World Elder Abuse Awareness Day
Facts: Fact Sheet World Elder Abuse Day  
Videos: Strengthening the Structure of Justice to Prevent Elder Abuse by the NCEA
Elder Abuse-Learn the signs and break the silence

Contributing Writer:  Crystal Baldwin


References:
[1] National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA)
[2] DAIL and AG Commemorate World Elder Abuse Awareness Day

Vermonter of the Month: Kathy Fox

Kathy Fox and T.J. Donovan

This is a monthly series in which the Attorney General will feature a Vermonter doing exemplary work in their community. Have someone you think should be featured? Email AGO.CAP@vermont.gov.

Driven by her belief that “people can change, and that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect,” Kathy Fox, our October Vermonter of the Month, created Vermont’s first college-in-prison program to provide people who are incarcerated with a second chance at education.

As a University of Vermont (UVM) professor of sociology, conducting research in recidivism, Kathy saw the effectiveness of higher education as a pathway for reintegration for people who were formerly incarcerated. In the spring of 2018, she along with a group of dedicated educators launched UVM’s Liberal Arts in Prison Program (LAPP). LAPP, in partnership with the Department of Corrections, provides introductory college courses to people who are incarcerated at the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility and Northwest Regional Correctional Facility. According to LAPP, “The recidivism rate in the state, while better than the national average of 60%, has hovered at about 45% for the last decade. Incarcerated citizens who are released with a high school education have a recidivism rate of 24%. The rate drops to 10% with two years of college, and to about 5% with four years of college.” By providing college courses to people while incarcerated, LAPP, under Kathy’s direction, hopes to reduce the rate of recidivism while also “while improving the odds of returning citizens becoming successful, crime-free, tax-paying members of society.”

A native of Oklahoma, Kathy found her way to Vermont when she accepted a position with UVM in 1994 immediately after completing graduate school. Since then, she has been impacting the lives of her students and people who are incarcerated through her volunteerism, research, and teaching. We had the pleasure of sitting down with Kathy to learn more about the work that she is doing and what drives her passion for social justice.

 How did you become interested in offender reentry/reintegration?

 I would attend criminology conferences and we would all be marveling at the incredible increase in the prison population and speculating about the issues that would be forthcoming when people got released. I had been studying Corrections for a long time and heard about the new reentry programs that Vermont was trying, and they sounded interesting to me. I learned about the unique system Vermont has with its community-based justice centers and was fascinated by the idea of considering reentry and reintegration as a community-level problem to address.

Also, from my research inside prisons, I could see how incarceration creates a lot of deficits for people, such as being able to get a job with a felony record, etc. I felt and still feel that our system isn’t designed for success upon release.

 What inspires your work, both at UVM and in the community?

 I have been aware for a long time about the role that privilege plays in the trajectory of one’s life. I came from a privileged background and know that, but for grace, there go I. I am interested in doing research and activities, like the Liberal Arts in Prison Program, that contribute to the public good, so that drives my decisions about what to devote energy and time to. It stems from a firm belief that people can change, and that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity, respect, and a second chance.

 What have you learned from your work with incarcerated individuals?

 So much! I have learned that people are remarkably resilient. The accomplishments of incarcerated individuals are more impressive to me than those by people with privilege, because many of them have significant challenges. I have met some very intelligent people who would have gone on a different path had their circumstances been different. I have also learned the value of letting people inside know that there are people who see them, and hear them, and care about their futures.

In addition, I have brought my on-campus students from UVM into the prisons for various activities, and I see tremendous benefit to that, for many reasons, but mostly to bring some humanity to their sense of the system.

 You have so many accomplishments, which, if any, are you most proud of?

 Well thanks! Personally, I am most proud that my spouse and I have raised two kids who are committed to social justice. But professionally, I think I am most proud of the Liberal Arts in Prison Program that I started (with lots of help from others!) because my hope is that it will be sustainable once I retire. We have only two semesters under our belt, but already a few incarcerated students, who were released, are pursuing higher education. Students have reported that they never thought they would be “college material” but now see themselves as students. That is deeply gratifying.

 What are you most hopeful for in the future with regard to offender reentry/reintegration in Vermont?

 I have been doing research on the Circles of Support & Accountability (CoSA) program for a decade and am heartened by the fact that Vermont has run more CoSA groups than any state in the nation; this is all the more impressive given how small our prison population is. I think this program will continue to grow, with positive results. With the advantage of having the community justice structure, and the web of volunteers growing, I believe we can change the culture and narrative about the responsibility to help people reintegrate after prison. I would like to see us reduce the number of people going into prison, but I think that change is coming.

Kathy Fox and T.J. Donovan sitting at table

5 Tips on Giving Wisely

Thinking about giving this holiday season? Here are five tips to help ensure that your contribution is going to a charity in need for a cause you support.

1- Research the charity. Understand how your money will be used by the charity before you donate. Websites like the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance and Charity Navigator make it easy to find this information.

2- Know who’s asking you for money. Ask if the person contacting you for a donation is a paid fundraiser. A paid fundraiser is paid to raise money on behalf of a charity, but is not an employee of the charity. These payment arrangements can vary widely. For information about the payment arrangement between the paid fundraiser and the charity, visit the “Charities” page on the Consumer Assistance Program’s website, or call 1-800-649-2424.

3- Don’t feel pressured to give over the phone. If you are interested in donating, but don’t want to give payment information over the phone, ask the charity to mail you information. This will give you more time to make your decision and research the charity.

4- Be cautious of scams. Fraudsters use the same contact methods as legitimate charities (phone, mail, email) and will try to trick you into “donating” money. Be wary of unsolicited emails asking you to donate, even if the email looks legitimate or you have heard of the charity. Stop and think before you click the link! Call the charity and ask if they are collecting donations by email. Or, hover your cursor over the link before clicking on it. If there is a redirected link that does not go to the charity’s website, it could be a scam. If you receive a request for a donation by phone, ask for detailed information about the charity, including the exact name of the charity and how your money will be used. If the solicitor refuses to give this information, or if they ask you to pay by wire transfer, cash, or prepaid gift card—don’t engage! It’s likely a scam.

5- Consider volunteering. Giving comes in more ways than just money. If you are interested in volunteering this holiday season, contact a charity in your community to see how you can help. Giving your time can be just as valuable as giving your money.