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.

Event Cancellation Guidance

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/.

Charity Fraud Awareness Week

October 21-25, 2019

Charity fraud is, unfortunately, all too common. But don’t be discouraged. You can still make your charitable giving count by following the tips below to identify the bad actors from the good:

Tip #1: Do your Research

Visit websites like Charity Navigator or the Better Business Bureau Charity Information for Donors to learn more about a particular charity. If you receive a call asking for donations, ask questions like:

“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 “cause.”  

  • 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 Vermont include:

  • 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.

Consumer Assistance Program: ago.vermont.gov/cap or 800-649-2424

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