Identity Theft and Phishing

By Crystal Baldwin

When I presented on the topic of identity theft a decade ago, the concept seemed somewhat distant, impacting few individuals with identity thieves using dated and laborious tactics to steal identities.  A section of my presentation was devoted to informing about dumpster diving—the fact that people can get a lot of information about your identity from the trash you discard—and encouraging shredding as an identity theft prevention step.  Another section focused on phishing and educating about what phishing is; not to be confused with fishing, except metaphorically of course. 

Protect yourself from Identity Theft! Safeguard your personal information.  Verify requests for information. Shred documents using a cross cutting shredder.

In the age of the robocall and the internet, phishing and identity theft have become more sophisticated in that scammers can make the same automated call to many people at once and data security breaches expose consumers to widespread identity theft.   

Even with advances in technology, identity thieves can still obtain your personal information by rummaging through your trash and phishing.  To demonstrate, let’s take a quiz: 

What do you do with your expired credit card when a replacement arrives in the mail? 

A. Cut it down the middle and throw it out.  The card cannot be used once the magnetic strip is severed.  

B. Run it through a straight-line shredding machine. The card will be of no use when made into little strips.  

C. Cut it into as many small pieces as possible, either with scissors or a cross-cutting shredder. Throw out the pieces in different trash bags. It will be virtually impossible to decipher the card with it in so many pieces and places. 

D. Discard as it is.  Without additional instruction from the bank, no additional steps are necessary.  The card is of no use once it expires. 

My answer is C: Cut the card into a million pieces and discard in multiple places.  Why?  Because even though the card is expired, with card updates the card number stays the same.  Once a determined scammer has obtained the card, all they need to do is follow up with a strategic phishing phone call to you.  When they call, they may claim to be your financial institution and ask a series of phishing questions, which exposes other important numbers about the valid card in your possession: the expiration date and the CCV.   

What exactly is phishing?  

A. A sport of catching fish, using a fishing pole. 

B. A fun excursion with Vermont Phish Phans.  

C. The fraudulent attempt to obtain your personal information or data. 

D. Testing the water pH before ice fishing.  

Hopefully this quiz question was easier.  The answer is also C.   

Identity thieves phish for information about you, your Social Security number, your bank account number, your credit card and debit card numbers, your birthday, and more in order to use the information for their own financial gain.  When an email purports to be your bank, saying you have been locked out of your account and you must login using the enclosed link, a scammer hopes you provide them all of your personal information by completing their realistic-looking bogus form.  Once you have, they can access and use your account.  And, depending on the information you have provided, they may also open up new lines of credit in your name without your knowledge or consent.  Identity thieves have opened home loans, car loans and credit cards.  They usually don’t pay the bills they run up, creating a mountain of work for you to dispute debts you do not owe.  

Phishing scammers may contact you by email, phone, text message, and any other communication mechanism you use currently, including social media.  Phishing scams often present a problem that must be solved by you disclosing some personal information.  They may even pretend to be your computer company, warning about viruses that need to be repaired on your computer.  They offer to help you resolve your virus problem, if you grant them access to your computer and, unknowingly, your personal information stored on your computer.  Phishing scammers may also say a package will soon be delivered to you and you must reply if you did not order a product, or else your credit card will be charged. Then when you call, they ask for your credit card number. 

Protect yourself from phishing scams! Scammers claim to be someone you know. They present a problem that can only be resolved by providing personal info or money, they may contact you by phone, email, text, mail, and even social media.

Phishing scams can be tricky, because there are scenarios in which a bank institution may contact you, such as if there has been fraudulent activity on your credit card. Scammers take advantage of this and try to replicate it.  Rather than trying to determine the difference between a scam call and a call from your bank, take out the guesswork by disconnecting the contact and calling your bank directly on a number you know to be valid.   

Resist the impulse to reply to urgent requests of phishing scammers.  By slowing down and taking steps to verify, you can stop phishing scammers from reeling you into their trap. 

Help CAP prevent scams by sharing this information with your community.  Have a scam to report? Use CAP’s online scam reporting form

For more information about identity theft, visit our website

Help us stop these scams by sharing this information with those you care about. Get notified about the latest scams: Sign up for VT Scam Alert System alerts.  

Social Security Number Phishing Scams

Since August 1, the Consumer Assistance Program has received approximately 275 reports of the Social Security number phishing scam!

Here’s how the scam works:

  1. You receive a phone call 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.
  2. If you “press 1”, you are connected to a live person, who claims to be a detective or law enforcement agent. They spin a detailed story about a crime committed involving your Social Security number.
  3. Then, the scammer attempts to obtain your personal information and money. Never provide your Social Security number or bank account numbers over the phone, especially to an unknown caller.

If you receive a Social Security number phishing scam call, hang up the phone! Do not press 1 or attempt to connect to a live person.

The Social Security Administration will contact you via official letters in the mail if necessary. If you receive a call threatening arrest, it’s a scam.

Take it SLOW: Scammers 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! Remember to slow down, hang up the phone, and log the call. All it takes is one call to someone in your life to talk it through. If you still need help identifying the scam, make an additional call to someone who cares. You can always call CAP, we care and can discuss scams with you.

If you do provide personal information to the scammers over the phone, here are some proactive steps you can take to protect your information and your finances:

  1. Report the scam to CAP: (800) 649-2424 or ago.cap@vermont.gov
  2. If you provided your Social Security number to the scammers:
    1. File an identity theft report with the Federal Trade Commission and your local police.
    2. Check your credit reports and place a fraud alert or freeze on your credit.
    3. Watch out for identity theft warning signs.
  3. If you provided financial information, such as bank account numbers or credit card numbers, contact the involved financial institutions right away.
  4. If you provided the scammers with a payment via gift card, call the phone number on the back of the card.

Credit 101

Credit can be a confusing concept. CAP wants to make it simple for you! This post is a guide to credit, credit bureaus, credit reports and more.

What is credit?

Your “credit” refers to your ability to borrow money and how much you can borrow. Your “credit score” is determined by your credit history, and suggests how likely you are to repay your loans.

What is a credit bureau?

As noted in our September 2017 blog post, credit bureaus receive regular reports about your credit history from banks, financial institutions, landlords, utilities, and even employers. The credit bureaus then put all of this information about your use of credit together into a single file — your “credit report.”

What is a credit report?

A credit report provides you with a detailed overview of your credit history prepared by the credit bureau. A credit report includes sensitive information, such as your Social Security number and history of employment. It will also indicate whether or not your accounts are in good standing and when they were opened.

How can I get my free credit report?

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires each of the nationwide credit reporting companies — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion — to provide consumers with a free copy of their credit report once every 12 months.

To access your free credit report, you can…

  1. Visit annualcreditreport.com or call 1-877-322-8228.
  2. Complete the Annual Credit Report Request Form and mail it to: Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281.
  3. Contact the three nationwide credit reporting companies individually:

Equifax: 1-800-685-1111 equifax.com

Experian: 1-888-397-3742 experian.com

TransUnion: 1-800-916-8800 transunion.com

Did you notice something suspicious on your credit report?

Under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, both the credit reporting company and the information provider are responsible for correcting inaccurate or incomplete information in your report.

To dispute an error on your credit report, follow these steps provided by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

What is a credit freeze?

This free tool lets you restrict access to your credit report, which makes it more difficult for identity thieves to open new accounts in your name. A credit freeze does not affect your credit score, it just protects your credit. Under a freeze, you can still access your free annual credit report, and it does not affect your ability to apply for a job, rent an apartment, or buy insurance. However, if you are opening a new account, you will need to lift the freeze temporarily. Lifting the freeze is free.

Want to learn more about credit freezes? Check out this helpful FAQ page produced by the Federal Trade Commission.

What is a credit fraud alert?

A credit fraud alert is a free tool that makes it more difficult for identity theft and/or fraud to occur. According to the FTC, when you have a fraud alert in place, a business must verify your identity before it issues credit. Once you place the alert, it will be active for one year.

To place a credit fraud alert, contact one credit bureau and ask to place the alert. That credit bureau will then contact the other two bureaus.

Are you suspicious that identity theft has occurred?

If you see items on your credit report that might signal fraud, you can file an identity theft report with the Federal Trade Commission. Reporting identity theft to your local police is another important step in this process.

Signs of fraud on a credit report may include unfamiliar accounts and charges. The FTC provides a helpful list of other identity theft warning signs, including:

  • Inexplicable withdrawals from your bank account
  • Merchants refuse your checks
  • The IRS warns you that more than one tax return was filed in your name
  • You receive an official notice concerning a data breach that may have affected you

Questions about checking your credit and/or identity theft? Call the Consumer Assistance Program! (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

Protect Your Credit: Get a Free Freeze

Credit on ice

Under the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act, credit freezes are free of charge to anybody, regardless of whether or not they are victims of identity theft. This new law requires credit-reporting agencies to eliminate the cost of credit freezes, credit unfreezes (thaws) and yearlong fraud alerts to consumers.

Website Required:  The three major credit bureaus, Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian must design a website, where consumers can go to request this credit protection. The sites must also provide the ability to opt-out of receiving solicitations in the mail for insurance or credit card approval.

Protection for Children: The act allows guardians to request on behalf of children younger than 16 years old to freeze their credit.

Military Credit Offers: Members of the military with access to active duty alerts can request to remove their name from prescreened credit card offers for two years.


Why Should You Consider a Credit Freeze?

Identity theft is a type of fraud, which can be extremely detrimental to your financial and personal well-being. Identity theft often occurs when a bad actor gets access to your social security number or financial account number. Many consumers believe they won’t become targets for identity theft, because:

  • They odds are slim and assume it won’t happen to them.
  • They don’t have much money in their bank accounts to steal.
  • They don’t have credit cards and assume this means they don’t have a credit history.
  • They don’t have a poor credit history and believe a scammer will not benefit from having their information.

These arguments do NOT prevent bad actors from opening accounts using your information. The main concern is not the money you have but whether new accounts can be open without your knowledge, or consent.


Protect Your Credit

Issuing a credit freeze essentially stops any credit-reporting agency from reporting your credit score or credit report to a lender. Credit reports help lenders decide whether or not to extend a line of credit or grant loans to consumers. Often, without the ability to see the credit report, lenders will deny the credit line or loan, therefore protecting the consumer from unwanted accounts in their name.

Concerned that you may seek a line of credit in the future?—The thaw can help with that. You can contact the company before you plan to take on a new line of credit and lift the freeze temporarily.

The credit freeze is the best line of defense against bad actors stealing your information and using it for their own financial gain. Now that this process is free, anyone can consider placing a credit freeze on their account!

For more information about credit freezes or credit fraud alerts, visit FTC.gov or call our consumer helpline at 1-800-649-2424.

Contributing Writer: Alexandra Esposito
Content Editor: Crystal Baldwin

Sources:  The Federal Trade Commission