BURLINGTON – Attorney General T.J. Donovan is warning Vermonters about a new variation of the family emergency scam in which scammers are demanding that cash be handed over in person to a “courier.” By presenting a fake emergency in which their loved one needs help getting out of trouble, scammers pressure panicked family members, including grandparents, into acting before they can realize it’s a scam. Until recently, scammers took a hands-off approach in collecting money, demanding gift cards, wire transfers, or virtual payments. Now, the Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) is receiving reports that scammers are enlisting “couriers” to collect cash directly from unsuspecting family members at their homes to resolve the fake emergency. Vermonters who receive these calls should resist the urge to act immediately and take steps to verify the caller’s identity.
While the family emergency scam has long plagued Vermonters, CAP is raising awareness about the spread of “couriers” coming to Vermonters’ homes to collect cash. CAP has received 216 reports of family emergency scams since the beginning of the year. In the last week, CAP has received 4 family emergency scam reports from Vermonters who were told that an individual or a “courier” would retrieve cash from them at their homes—3 of these scams resulted in monetary loss. Common elements of this scam include:
Claims of a “gag order” being in place which requires secrecy.
Cash is needed to pay for a “bond” or a “bail bond agent.”
A loved one was involved in a “car accident,” sometimes related to traveling for a COVID-19 test.
CAP has found that scammers are becoming more sophisticated in their contacts and appear to be using internet searches and public social media profiles to research the locations of family members. By searching telephone numbers and addresses on the internet and scanning popular social media sites, scammers can learn about familial relationships, ages, and geographic locations. Scammers then use this information to make the scam seem credible.
CAP advises Vermonters to slow down and follow a plan to not get scammed. Use the SLOW method in urgent situations:
S – SLOW DOWN. Scammers pressure you to act urgently. Take time to regain your calm.
L – LOG THE CONTACT. Write down the phone number of the contact and disengage.
O – ONE CALL. Make one call to a primary contact, such as a friend or family member, and discuss the incident.
W – WHO CARES? Call CAP to identify and report scams at 1-800-649-2424.
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.
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:
My dad was offered a job at the dealership—he did so well saying “No” they wanted him to work for them.
A large-print calculator (My dad did not stop asking for it).
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.
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.
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.
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/.
“Who are you and what is the name of this charity?” “Where is the charity located?” “How would my donation be used?” “Are you a paid fundraiser?”
Tip #2: Learn about Paid Fundraisers
Some charities hire paid fundraising companies to help them solicit donations. In Vermont, any charity using a paid fundraiser must register with the Vermont Attorney General’s Office, and report how much of the donations received go to the fundraiser. Visit the Attorney General’s website to learn more and access donation information, or call the Consumer Assistance Program: 800-649-2424
Tip #3: Spot the Scam
Scammers use phone calls, mailings,
door-to-door solicitations, and emails to trick people into “donating” to their
Phone calls: Scammers will pressure you to give money right away. They might ask you to send cash or wire money, and they will not give many details about what the donation is for.
Mailings: You might receive a letter in the mail thanking you for a pledge you never made. This is a signal that the mailer is a scam. If you receive a mailer that you’re unsure about, do your homework by searching online, or call the Consumer Assistance Program.
Door-to-door: When someone knocks on your door to ask for a donation, the pressure is on. Remember that you are under no obligation to give. Ask for more information and do your research. If you cannot get legitimate information about the charity, odds are it is a scam.
Emails: Think before you click! Phishing emails look similar to messages from legitimate sources and use email addresses that seem familiar. Be cautious with suspicious emails and call a charity directly if you have questions. Don’t use a phone number on the suspicious email; look it up separately.
Some common charity scams in
Pastor imposter scams: a scammer posing as a local religious leader asks you to donate to a cause using gift cards via email.
Fire or police organization imposter scams: a scammer calls asking for donations to a local or national first responder organization. If you get a suspicious solicitation, hang up the phone and call your local firefighter or police station to get more information.
Disaster scams: Scammers ask you to donate to a charity that provides relief for people who have experience natural disasters, except the charity doesn’t exist or they are impersonating a real charity. Always do your research before giving money or personal information.
Tip #4: Call the Consumer Assistance Program!
If you feel unsure about a charity
solicitation or believe you have donated to a scam, call the Consumer
Assistance Program! The Consumer Assistance Program can help identify warning
signs, provide paid fundraiser information, and help you recover from scams.