Imposter Scams: Take Steps to Verify. Video Scam Prevention Project

By Crystal Baldwin

My fellow Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) colleagues and I have heard hundreds of personal stories from those who have experienced loss due to scams. The effects of scams are devastating and overwhelming. We understand where you are coming from when you reflect, “This just isn’t me,” after having sent thousands of dollars. We feel your confusion when you say, “I don’t know where I went wrong.” We band together to rally your call to action to “do something,” because we too “don’t want this scam to happen to anyone else.” 

In chasing the call to do something, in 2019 we applied for a grant through the Sears Consumer Protection and Education Fund to produce three scam awareness and prevention videos with a uniform message for consumers to “Know Your Relationships: Take Steps to Verify.” We were awarded this grant in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, which slowed, but could not stall our efforts in completing this important project. 

Me in character on the Twincraft Skincare set.

I wrote each script, calling on personal accounts of courageous Vermonters, who were willing to share their stories with one goal in mind: to help prevent scams from happening to others. We drew up character breakdowns, hoping for a diverse cast and put out a casting call for volunteers. In the end, we had two professional actresses, Ruth Wallman and Chloë Clark, donate their talent and expertise to the cause. For the remaining roles, we relied on our personal network of generous souls, including our Assistant Director’s son, Lars Jensen, and neighbor, Dave Saraceno. The remaining roles were brought to life by CAP personnel, Cameron Randlett, Charity Clark, and me. Without any formal acting experience, I was not first in line to fill the role, but when our casted actress relocated as our filming deadline encroached, I stepped up. We finally had a concrete filming date with a spectacular set, thanks to the kindness of Twincraft Skincare to offer up their space. I couldn’t let them or this project down.  So, I put on my actor-in-training hat and broke a couple of legs—so to speak.  

This experience, from start to release date, has reinforced my commitment to providing compassionate service to the people of our state. In completing this project, we have compiled so much more than videos and information. The videos, packaged with our online resources, equip consumers to be aware about imposter scams and apply specific mechanisms to stop scams in their tracks. I am proud of my team and the final product we present to you now. 

Throughout the month of December, we will be showcasing the three produced videos, which highlight three very common scams with dollar loss: the romance imposter scam, the family emergency/imposter scam, and the business email imposter scam. It is our hope that as each video is showcased, it will be shared widely by you. As I hoped to instill throughout this work—this information is best in the hands of everybody. Please share it

:30 – Avoiding the Romance Scam video. Hear the whole story at ago.vermont.gov/romance-imposter
:30 – Avoiding the Family Imposter Scam video. Hear the whole story at ago.vermont.gov/family-imposter
:30 – Avoiding the Business Imposter Email Scam video. Hear the whole story at ago.vermont.gov/business-imposter

Protect your Money from Scammers!

Unfortunately, many scam encounters result in monetary loss in Vermont. In 2020, 249 Vermonters lost approximately $1.5 million 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.  

Here are 5 things you can do to avoid experiencing a scam with monetary loss: 

  1. Don’t send money to someone you don’t know. This may sound simple, but it’s an important tip to remember. Take it slow. Scammers will pressure you to act quickly or face serious consequences. Do not provide unsolicited callers with your credit card or bank account numbers. If you are asked to send money via gift cards, wire transfer, cash in the mail, or peer-to-peer payment apps, it’s a scam.  
  1. Gift cards are for gifts and should be treated like cash. If you are asked to provide payment over the phone or via email using gift cards, it’s a scam. Typically, the scammer will ask you to purchase gift cards at a local grocery store or pharmacy, asking that you provide the numbers on the back of the card. In 2020, Vermonters lost approximately $128,000 to gift card scams (as reported to CAP). For more information about gift card scams, visit our Gift Card Scams blog post. 
  1. If it’s too good to be true, it’s not true. Scammers who perpetrate “free money” scams promise cash prizes, cars, and even grant funding in exchange for payment up front. Free money is always free. If you are asked to pay fees to receive a prize or grant, it’s a scam. 
  1. Scammers know exactly what to say. To get your money, scammers will often feed their victims  lines to use with bank clerks or cashiers in order to push through unusually large withdrawals, transfers, and purchases. They may ask you to say that the money is for a family member or a significant purchase to avoid suspicion from bankers and retailers.  
  1. Do not share personal or financial information with unverified contacts. Legitimate organizations and businesses will not call, email, or text you for your sensitive personal information. Scammers may claim there has been fraud and you need to verify your information – don’t take the bait. End communication with them and contact the associated business or organization using verified contact information.  

BONUS TIP: Look out for the scams below, which were associated with 95 of the 249 scam with loss reports we received in 2020: 

Imposter Scams / Phony Relationship Scams 

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. 

Online Classified Listing Scams 

The scam: Sometimes the scammer responds to a seller 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. 

For more information about avoiding monetary loss and fraud, visit the Federal Trade Commission’s website:  

Have you experienced monetary loss due to a scam? Report it to CAP:

Call (800) 649-2424 OR Complete the Vermont Attorney General’s scam reporting form

Grandchild Imposter “Grandparent” Scam in Vermont

Contributing Writer:  Crystal Baldwin

“Grandma, it’s me, I am in prison…”
“Grandpa, I’m in the hospital. I need help…”
“Nanna and Poppa, I had a bad car accident, and people are injured…”

No matter what the scammers say when they initiate the “Grandparent” scam, the introduction is sure to spike emotion.  That is what they hope.  They 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 and deep, 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?

It is so hard. What if the very phone where you received the call is also what will reveal the mystery?  What if all you needed was your phone and a reminder to slow down? Would receiving this daunting call be any easier?

Today, our office issued an alert about the grandchild imposter scam, commonly referenced as the grandparent scam, because it targets grandparents and their unwavering generosity and care for their loved ones.  This scam is successful because the scammers know our grandparents care, and they know the psychology behind how difficult it is to think through problems when emotions are high.  

Infographic produced by the Consumer Assistance Program. Share it with those you care about.

When you receive one of these jarring calls, here is what you can do:

Take steps to verify by remembering SLOW: 

SSlow down.  The scammers urge you to act urgently. Don’t.

LLog the call.  For your assurance, write down the phone number of the caller and hang up.

OOne call. Make a call to your grandchild or another who can verify your grandchild’s whereabouts and well-being.

WWho cares? Call another person in your life who cares about you. Know that you can call CAP at 1-800-649-2424.  We care and can help identify scams.

Before this scam happens to you, you can take steps now to create a scam action plan with your family.  Keep the SLOW reminder near your phone. With family, consider creating an uncommon family code word or PIN that you agree to not share publicly.  Make a phone tree of reliable contacts to call if a scam like this is received.  Act now to prevent future loss.

Help us stop these scams by sharing this information with those you care about.       

If you have lost money to this scam, please contact the Consumer Assistance Program right away at 800-649-2424.

For more information on the Attorney General’s efforts to support and protect older Vermonters, visit the webpage of the Attorney General’s Elder Protection Initiative.