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.

Stay safe online this Valentine’s Day!

Looking for love online? The Consumer Assistance Program is here to help you make sure that your personal information and money are secure!

Romance Scams

How it works: The scammer creates a fake profile on a dating site or app. They may also initiate contact through Instagram, Facebook, Words With Friends, or Google Hangouts. Then, the scammer strikes up a relationship with their victim, gains their trust, and maintains sustained contact.

Spotting the scam: The scammer spins a story and asks you to send them personal information or money. They may ask you to send gift cards, mail cash, or wire them money via Western Union or MoneyGram.

What to do: End all communications with the scammer. Block the individual and/or report them to the website or app company. Do not send money or reveal personal information such as: social security number, bank accounts, credit card numbers, photo of your driver’s license, etc. If you have sent money or given the scammer access to sensitive information, call the Consumer Assistance Program.

Source: Federal Trade Commission

For more information about Romance Scams, see our blog post from February 2018.

Sextortion Emails

How it works: You receive an email from an unknown source. The message claims that they know your passwords and have planted malware on your computer. They claim that the malware has captured evidence of all your computer activity – including sensitive photos or visits to adult websites.  They threaten to share this evidence with all of your email or social media contacts. The scammer demands hush money in the form of gift cards, Bitcoin, or wire transfers.

Spotting the scam: The message might look generic and have numerous typos. They demand that you respond quickly, maybe within 24 hours. The passwords they claim to have appear to be old or may be log-in information you use for a website.

What to do: Do not reply to the message. Do not send money or personal information. Change your passwords to ensure your online security, especially if a website you use has recently experienced a data breach. Do not click on any links or attachments on the email. Make sure that your antivirus software is up to date.

Adult Website Pop-Ups

How it works: You are visiting an adult website when a pop-up message appears. The pop-up might be flashing or include sound. The pop-up may claim to be “Windows Support” or state that “Your computer may have a virus!” It is designed to pressure the user into a sense of panic. The message might prompt you to call someone for technical assistance.

Spotting the scam: Real computer tech support specialists will never ask you to call them in this manner. The pop-up may demand immediate action, payment, or prompt you to download something.

What to do: Turn off your computer and disconnect from the internet. Make sure that your antivirus software is up to date and functioning. If necessary, you may decide to seek out assistance from a trusted tech support professional.

Remember: some scammers are betting that topics of romance and sex can be sensitive or even embarrassing. Please don’t let these feelings keep you from calling CAP to get help! The reality is that we regularly hear from consumers who have been affected by these scams. Pick up the phone and give us a call if you feel you may have been scammed: 1-800-649-2424.

Vermont’s Top Scams of 2018

Top 10 Scams of VT 2018

Vermonters filed 5,471 scam reports with the Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) in 2018 according to the Attorney General’s list of top 10 most commonly reported scams of the year. This amounts to a 4.55% increase in scams from 2017. As new scams emerged, old scams persisted. The IRS scam, which involves scammers claiming to be government officials collecting back taxes, was the most common scam for the fifth year in a row. Vermonters filed 1,429 reports regarding the IRS scam.

Spoofing, when scammers falsify information on Caller ID to appear as though the call comes from a local number, is on the rise. One type of this call is the “reflector” scam, which involves repeated calls coming in from ones’ own number. Another new scam this year reported by more than 100 Vermonters was a threatening email containing an old password and demanding money. The number of social security number phishing scams also increased, rising sharply at the end of the year.

“Scam calls are everywhere and affect everyone,” Attorney General T.J. Donovan said. “I urge Vermonters to stay alert and know the common scams. And please continue to report scams to my office so we can work to educate and protect Vermonters.”

Scam reports total over one-third of all contacts to CAP, making them one of the most common consumer issues affecting Vermonters. To counter the overwhelming number of scams, Attorney General T.J. Donovan, in partnership with the Department of Public Safety, launched a new scam alert system in 2017 to warn Vermonters about new or widespread scams. Vermonters can report a scam or sign up for the Scam Alert system by going to ago.vermont.gov/cap or by calling CAP at 1-800-649-2424.

The top 10 scams of 2018 are:

  1. IRS imposter
  2. Social security number phishing
  3. Computer tech support
  4. Grandchild imposter
  5. Debt collection threats
  6. Spoofing
  7. Reflector (claim to be Microsoft)
  8. Email extortion
  9. Publishers clearinghouse sweepstakes claims
  10. Sweepstakes claims (general)

Information about each scam:

  1. IRS Imposter

 The scam: A phone call claiming you owe “back taxes” or payments to the government allegedly from the IRS or “US Treasury and Legal Affairs.” They may threaten you with arrest or investigation.

How to ID the scam: The IRS will never call you at home to threaten legal action.

What to do: Don’t respond to these callers. If you think you may actually owe back taxes, hang up and contact the IRS directly at 1-800-829-1040.

  1. Social Security Number Phishing

The scam: An attempt to obtain your social security number by posing as the Social Security Administration or a business. They may try to get access to your social security number by telling you it has been compromised or stolen.

How to ID 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.

What to do: Be wary responding to unsolicited contacts and never provide personal information to unknown contacts.

  1. Computer Tech Support

The scam: A phone call or pop-up message on your computer claiming to be from Microsoft/Windows or another well-known tech company. They will say that there’s a virus or other problem with your computer and try to persuade you to give them remote access to resolve the issue.

How to ID 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 company numbers.

  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.

How to ID 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.

  1. Debt Collection Threats

 The scam: Scammers pose as a debt collector or government official and say legal action will be taken against you if you don’t pay them what you owe.

How to ID the scam: If you did owe a debt collector or official agency money, they are not allowed to threaten you with arrest over the phone.

What to do: Hang up the phone, and if they call again let it go to voicemail. If you think you do actually owe money to a debt collector or other agency, make sure you call and check using a trusted number.

  1. Spoofed Calls

 The scam: Spoofed calls come from a number that appears local to Vermont – or even your town. But in reality, the scammer is often calling from overseas, and “spoofing” the number to make it show up on caller ID as a neighbor so you’ll be inclined to answer.

How to ID the scam: The call comes from a number you don’t recognize and/or happens repeatedly at all hours. It may be your own number.

What to do: Ignore the call. Don’t call the number back – chances are the person you are calling has nothing to do with the scam.

  1. Reflector (claim to be Microsoft)

 The scam: Similar to other spoofed calls, these scammers will call you on what appears to be your own number. Upon picking up, the scammer tells you that your Microsoft software or your computer IP address has been compromised. They will ask you to pay them immediately over the phone to protect your computer data.

How to ID the scam: Nobody from Microsoft would call you to say that your data has been breached or your IP address compromised. They especially wouldn’t ask you to pay immediately using Google Play gift cards or your credit card.

What to do: Never give personal or financial information to an unverified person or service that contacts you.

  1. Email Extortion Scams

The scam: You may receive a threatening email from a person you don’t know saying that they have an old password of yours or some other personal information. They use that against you in order to scare you into paying them.

How to ID the scam: Legitimate actors would never threaten you, even if they had access to your old information.

What to do: Never click on links that are in the email because they may give the scammer remote access to your computer or download viruses. Don’t reply to the email or interact with it in any way and delete it from your inbox. If they refer to a valid password, go to your account directly and change your password.

  1. Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes Claims 

 The scam: A call, email or letter claiming that a consumer has won big from Publisher’s Clearinghouse and needs to pay a fee to collect winnings. Sometimes this will include a realistic-looking check.

How to ID the scam: If you actually win a major prize from Publisher’s Clearinghouse, 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.

What to do: Never pay an upfront fee to receive winnings. If you win something, they will pay you – not the other way around.

  1. Sweepstakes Claims (general)

 The scam:  A phone call or mailing claiming that you won money or a prize but have to make a payment in order to receive it. Sometimes the outreach includes a realistic fake check. The check bounces and no “winnings” are ever dispersed.

How to ID the scam: If it is a well-known organization, try contacting them to verify the information. If it is an unknown organization, chances are the winnings are fake. An unsolicited check in the mail from an unknown sender is usually a scam.

What to do: Never pay upfront to receive winnings. 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.

Contributing Writer: Sarah Anders
Content Editor: Crystal Baldwin