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. 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.
Reports of scams to the Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) totaled 5,154 in 2021, up just slightly from the previous year’s 5,021 reports. Two variations of the Computer Tech Support scam and the Online Listing scam claimed the number one, three, and seven spots respectively on CAP’s list of top ten scams in 2021, covering nearly a quarter of the total reports filed by Vermonters. Businesses were also targeted by internet-based scams in 2021. The Business Imposter Email Scam, where scammers represent themselves as business personnel to extort funds, had 62 reports filed—a figure that did not make the top ten but notably jumped nearly 50% from the previous year.
Impersonation scams remain of concern, with an adapted law enforcement and lawyer imposter scam at the number four spot in 2021, threatening arrest and lawsuits on unsuspecting call recipients. The Family Emergency/Imposter scam, which includes the Grandchild Imposter also known as the “Grandparent scam” and needy friends and relatives asking for funds, made the top ten list again in 2021. A similar scam, which fabricates a romantic relationship or friendship of confidence, the Romance Imposter scam, saw a 36% increase in reports. As imposter scams are of ongoing concern in Vermont, CAP recently distributed a video imposter scam prevention project, highlighting three concerning imposter scams with high dollar loss: the Romance Imposter scam, the Family Emergency/Imposter Scam, and the Business Imposter Email Scam.
As highlighted in the prevention project, taking steps to verify can help individuals avoid scams. A simple verification process to follow for all scams is the SLOW Method:
S – SLOW DOWN
Scammers pressure you to act urgently. Don’t!
L – LOG THE CONTACT
Write down the info of the contact and disengage.
O – ONE CALL
Make one call to a primary contact and discuss the incident.
W – WHO CARES?
Call CAP to identify and report scams at 1-800-649-2424.
CAP reminds Vermonters to never give out personal information or make payments to parties you cannot verify. Scammers will ask for payment in all forms, including wire transfer, cryptocurrency, cash, peer-to-peer payment, money order, check, credit/debit card, and gift cards. If you have sent money to a scammer, follow recovery steps now.
Vermonters can help stop scams by sharing information with community members and by reporting scams to CAP to support educational outreach. To report scams, complete CAP’s online scam reporting form or call 1-800-649-2424.
The scam: A variation of the traditional Computer Tech Support scam (see # 3 below). You receive an automated phone call, text message, or email claiming that you have been charged for an online order, have an outstanding balance on your account, or are sent an item you did not order. The scammer then instructs individuals to call a number provided in the scammer’s communications to get a refund or to resolve the charge. At this point, they will ask you to provide your card number to “confirm your account” or prompt you to provide them remote access to your computer. As soon as the scammer has remote access to your device, they can access every single document, file, and transaction you have saved to your device.
How to spot the scam: Companies will not call with tech support unless you requested that they contact you. If you receive a package that you do not recall ordering, check your statement history to see if you have been charged. Packages without a return address are highly suspicious.
What to do: Hang up the phone immediately and do not call back. If you receive an email or text regarding a package delivery or order that has been made, do not click on any links. Mark the email as “Junk” or “Spam”. Furthermore, never allow remote access to your device to unknown parties. If you are concerned about charges made to your accounts, log in to your account directly and contact your financial institution. If you receive a package that you did not order, mark it return to sender and give it back to the mail carrier.
The scam: You receive a phone call (often a robocall) stating that there has been criminal or fraudulent activity involving your Social Security number. The call may even claim you will lose your benefits, or they will expire.
How to spot the scam: Social Security and other government agencies typically contact you by mail before initiating phone communication; they usually don’t call you first, you call them. They also would not threaten you for your information or payment.
What to do: Whenever you receive an unsolicited contact, take steps to verify. Never provide personal information to unknown contacts. Report robocalls to CAP for enforcement.
The scam: You receive a phone call, pop-up, or email on your computer claiming to be from Norton, Microsoft, Apple, or another well-known tech company. They will make claims such as your electronic device has a virus, your device security subscription has been automatically renewed, or stating you have been charged for services you did not receive or ask for. You may be prompted to click a link or call a number to contact. They will try to persuade you to give remote access to your device to fix the issue, and sometimes will even ask for immediate payment for their services.
How to spot the scam: Legitimate tech support companies do not display communications to their customers as random pop-ups on your device. Tech support will not call you to warn of security incidents; that your account has been renewed for a subscription you do not recognize; and will not send you random links, often shortened, with instructions for you to click on URLs.
What to do: When contacted about a supposed business relationship, take steps to verify, especially if you do not remember signing up for services. Never click on links or provide remote access to your computer from an unknown email sender or pop-up message on your device’s screen. If you received a pop-up message you cannot click out of, shut down, restart, or unplug your device. If you get a call from “tech support”, hang up. Also, be careful when searching for tech support online. Some users have been scammed by calling illegitimate phone numbers listed on the internet.
Legal Authority Imposter
The scam: You receive a phone call unexpectedly, claiming to be a police officer, U.S. Marshall, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or an attorney with legal authority. The caller threatens arrest or pending lawsuits against you. When you engage, urgent payment is demanded to make the problem go away. Payment does not solve the supposed problem, and they keep calling.
How to spot the scam: The police would not warn you ahead of time about a pending warrant. If you were going to be sued, the papers would be served without notice.
What to do: Know your rights. Harassing debt collection practice is unlawful, and collectors aren’t allowed to make claims they can’t or won’t pursue. Hang up on all threats and report them.
The scam: You will be notified by phone, email, or mail that you won a prize or a quantity of money. In some cases, you will even receive a realistic-looking check – but it is fake! You are instructed to pay fees and give your financial and personal information to claim your prize. They often use a legitimate sweepstakes name, like Publishers Clearing House.
How to spot the scam: Legitimate sweepstakes and contest businesses, like Publishers Clearing House and Mega Millions lottery, will contact you in person if you win a major prize. For prizes under $10,000, the notification is done through certified mail by overnight delivery services (FedEx, UPS). They will not contact you by phone, nor require a payment or processing fee to release your prize.
What to do: If it sounds too good to be true, then it’s not true. You don’t need to pay fees or give your financial information in order to claim a prize.
The scam: You receive a letter that claims you have requested government benefits, opened a bank account, filled a credit card application, or are notified about a security breach. Sometimes you will stop receiving legitimate bills and other mail or start to get bills for products and services that you didn’t pursue.
How to spot the scam: Be aware of unsolicited phone calls, mail and emails stating unexpected bank transactions, credit card or benefit applications. If your expected bills are not showing up, or you are receiving correspondence in someone else’s name, report it.
What to do: Don’t give out personal information, such as your Social Security number, passwords, personal identification numbers, and financial accounts. Review your credit reports at least once a year. Carefully check bank account statements and benefits to verify transactions. Shred documents and expired credit cards before you throw them out. Verify security breach notification letters received on the Attorney General’s website. If your information has been stolen by an identity thief, take identity theft protection steps.
The scam: Fake websites or phony listings on sites like Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist draw you into a purchase that’s likely too good to be true. This scam can also appear in online rental listings, and as a buyer offering well-over the selling price for an item. As a seller, the fake buyer sends a fake check or pays with a fraudulent credit card and asks you to advance funds to another fake vendor, causing you to be out the funds.
How to spot the scam: Be skeptical of unrealistic offers. Watch out for requests for money in any form (gift cards, wire transfers, cash) when not made in person. Scammers likely will not want to talk on the phone or meet in person. Heed warnings in user reviews and other online commentary.
What to do: Playing it safe online takes a bit of detective work to determine legitimacy of an offer. Investigate the person/profile of the seller. If their profile is new and they have no friends and photos, they are likely a scam. Research new websites you are considering doing business with by looking up online reviews and state business registrations, taking note of how long the company has been operating. Perform online searches of the business with “scam” and “complaints” to see if issues generate. Complete your transactions in cash and preferably a safe place in-person.
The scam: Scammers will call, often with a live call and from a spoofed caller ID number, and pose as Medicare representatives to gain your personal information and money. These scams are most frequent during times of open enrollment but can occur year-round. The scammers will state they need your Medicare card number or Social Security number to keep your coverage active and verify medical information. The calls may also claim that coverage is expiring or in need of renewal. Scammers will also ask if you received a “new Medicare card”, often referred to as a “gold card” or “red, white, and blue card”.
How to spot the scam: In general, Medicare cards do not expire. Unless you have called Medicare using the 800 number on the back of your card and requested a callback, Medicare will not call you. If a phone call is required, you would receive a letter from the Social Security Administration to schedule a call. Medicare representatives will never call you to verify your information, sell you products, tell you that your coverage is expiring, or to issue you a new card.
What to do: Never provide your Medicare number or other personal information and payment to unknown callers. In Vermont, representatives of the State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) at 1-800-642-5119 through local Area Agencies on Aging can help address Medicare questions. Other questions and concerns about Medicare coverage can be directed to Medicare at 1-800-MEDICARE. You may also report this scam to the Federal Trade Commission.
The scam: Scammers pose to be someone you trust and pretend to be in an emergency to convince you to send them money or will ask you for a favor. These scammers pose as grandchildren, friends, relatives, and close contacts and seem like the real deal. Scammers impersonate people you love and play on your fears to have you send money urgently. After the initial call, you may be told a lawyer, parole officer or courtroom may contact you for further information.
How to spot the scam: Contacts come in as calls or emails or online messages. Sometimes it’s someone you haven’t heard from in a while. They require urgency and ask for secrecy. You may not be allowed to speak to your loved one on the phone.
What to do: Take steps to verify. Check out if they really are who they say even if they sound like a loved one. Slow down your response and contact someone you trust to verify if there is an emergency. You can also choose a “code word” with friends and family to verify the person is who they claim to be. If they don’t know the word, they are not your friend or family member.
Auto Warranty Expiration
The scam: You receive a call or mail from fake representatives of auto dealers, manufacturers, and insurance companies, trying to convince you to renew your auto warranty or insurance or claim your warranty is expired. You may be instructed to press a number or stay on the line for a representative that seems like a real person. When contacted by these scammers, you may be asked personal information about yourself and your vehicle or financial information to pay off this fake claim.
How to spot the scam: Be mindful that only a vehicle’s manufacturer can extend factory warranties, not an outside company. Avoid any call or mailing that states it’s urgent for you to take immediate action to continue your car’s warranty.
What to do: If you have inquiries on your vehicle or its warranty, call the number on your purchase paperwork. You can also contact the dealership you purchased the vehicle from to inquire about the warranty as well. Hang up on or discard any suspicious mailing or person claiming to know about your auto warranty. Do not provide any personal or identifying information unless you can verify you are dealing directly with a verified company that you have a business relationship with.
“I need help…” “I’m in prison…” “I’m in the hospital. I need help…” “I had a bad car accident, and people are injured…”
No matter what the scammers say when they initiate the family imposter/ emergency scam, it is sure to spike emotion. Scammers call, claiming to be one of your most cherished loved ones—your grandchild—and ignite fear that those you care about are in dire need. With emotions running high, how can you not engage with the call, stay on the line, and find out more? You are worried and feel helpless because all you have to validate this story is the phone in your hand and the fear of what if.
What if you do nothing and your grandchild really is in trouble?
I considered these very questions when writing the script for the newly released Avoiding the Family Emergency Scam videos. I recalled the stories of actual Vermont families receiving such alarming calls in the middle of the night with nothing to go on but the urgency of the call, the deep love for their family member, and the desire to resolve the issue at hand. As our volunteer actress, Ruth Wallman, relays as the unsuspecting grandparent in the video, “What was I supposed to do? He needed my help!…I like to be there for my family. But, this just went too far.”
In creating this video series, I hoped to help Vermont families find a way to still be there for their families when emergencies arise by arming them with useful verification strategies to decipher between a scam and an actual family crisis. Verification of the family imposter scam starts with the SLOW method, a scam response strategy I created specifically to pause and identify scams. It urges people to Slow Down, Log the Contact, make One Call to a primary contact to discuss the incident, and call an organization in your life Who Cares, such as the Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) at 1-800-649-2424.
Engaging with others is a crucial verification step, because scammers often demand secrecy in family emergency scams and make would-be valid claims that they would be too embarrassed or ashamed, or afraid of ensuing punishment if other family members were made aware of the damning incident.
Family support and open, frequent communication among families is essential to putting an end to the family imposter/emergency scam. If questions remain, family cannot be reached or communications are limited, contacting a third-party organization, like CAP is the next best step. CAP is familiar with scams and can help to identify them. By contacting CAP, you can also make a scam report, which helps our office identify and alert the public about scam trends.
Help protect yourself and others by taking time to watch the video. Review the information on our website, and encourage those you care about to learn more about scams and prevention strategies to stop them.