The Awful COVID-19 Hardship Benefits and Compensation Scam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Call the Consumer Assistance Program at 800-649-2424 if you have questions, concerns, or need help determining if you have been a victim of a scam.  Learn more about the scam and report it to the Vermont Department of Labor:  https://labor.vermont.gov/news/ui-fraud-alert-active-phishing-attempt  

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

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/.

Is price gouging in your community?

When I went to the pharmacy today, there was a handwritten sign on the entrance, “No more hand sanitizer and face masks.”  Like many of you, my email inbox has been flooded with precautionary warnings of the COVID-19 virus and advice as to what people can do to stay healthy.  With very few reports of the virus in Vermont as of today, the sign at the pharmacy was confirmation to me that Vermonters are worried; so worried that my fellow neighbors bought the pharmacy’s entire stock of hand sanitizer and face masks. 

I wasn’t shopping for hand sanitizer and face masks today, but if I were, I might have ventured down the road to the next pharmacy.  The question on my mind now is, if the next pharmacy had stock, how much would the products cost?  I’ve seen news reports of stores in other states charging $130 for an average bottle of hand sanitizer.  Last I checked locally, before COVID-19 virus news, hand sanitizer cost between $3 and $7 depending on brand and price.  Going from $7 to $130 is about a 1800% increase.  To me, such an increase is considered price gouging. Generally, price gouging is when sellers unfairly hike prices of essential consumer goods and services during an emergency or disaster.

Many states have very specific regulations about price gouging, identifying price increases of more than 10% over the cost of the item as gouging.  Vermont has a price gouging statute specifically referencing the prohibition of gouging on the price of petroleum products and heating fuel products once a market emergency has been declared by the Governor (9 V.S.A. § 2461d).  As of today, such a declaration has not been made, and the Consumer Assistance Program has heard only one complaint about fuel cost increases due to COVID-19.  In addition to this statute, price gouging in Vermont may be considered unfair and deceptive.  Vermont’s consumer protection statute informs that “unfair methods of competition in commerce and unfair deceptive acts or practices in commerce” are unlawful.  Businesses setting unconscionable prices on essential items during a crisis, such as a price increase of 18 times the typical retail value as in my example above, could be in violation of the Consumer Protection Act, 9 V.S.A. §§ 2451 et seq.   

If you have noticed steep price increases of essential items and related services at specific businesses following the alert of the COVID-19 virus, file a complaint with the Consumer Assistance Program by calling 800-649-2424 or visiting ago.vermont.gov/cap.

Other resources:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 virus resources
Vermont Department of Health COVID-19 virus updates

Contributing Writer: Crystal Baldwin