Internet Scams to Avoid

By Crystal Baldwin 

This time last year, I had no idea my whole life would be online—work, exercise, shopping excursions, and more.  Now that pretty much every facet of my life, and likely yours too, involves the internet, we must be on the lookout for new and developing scams to prevent ourselves and our friends and loved ones from being scammed.   

Common scam signs are unverified requests for personal information and money, whether requested through gift card, wire transfer, cash, peer-to-peer payment, postal money order, or check. 

The following are some anticipated internet scams to avoid: 
 
CEO/boss and business/organization personnel imposter scams:  Business personnel working remotely, in distracting environments and away from regular exchange with colleagues, may receive urgent messages from someone purporting to be their boss or colleague ordering funds to be transferred. 

  • Spot the Scam:  Scammers create an email address like your colleague’s and assign the name of the email account holder to be the person’s name. 
  • How they trick us:  It is easy to miss that the details of the email address have changed, particularly when operating on mobile devices, which often only display the email sender’s name.  
  • Scam Prevention:  In business operations, put into place verification checks.  Ensure one check includes verifying requests directly with the sender through a phone call or video chat.  Also, require a third party to be involved, such as another colleague

Job and work-at-home offers and business opportunity scams:  These involve enticing offers to make a lot of money in exchange for performing simple tasks and transmitting money.  

  • Spot the Scam:  Commonalities among all such scams offer work that is too good to be true, ask for payment or your personal information at some point, and refuse to communicate with you by video chat on your terms. 
  • How they trick us:  These scams can hide in plain sight, often posting in known online listings, like LinkedIn and Indeed, and even post listings under known business names.
  • Scam Prevention:  Standard application and onboarding procedures apply to home-based jobs as onsite positions:  You never provide your personal information up front. You never have to give money to your employer.  For business opportunities, the FTC prohibits the exchange of payment prior to the issuance of very specific disclosures.  

Friend-in-need and fake crowdfunding scams:  We have heard reports of Vermonters responding to emailed and messaged requests for help for various needs, such as to support missions and charitable causes, some scammers even claim to be the pastor of a congregation.  The scam pulls us in as we strive for connection and community through this time of isolation. We want to be helpful but can’t volunteer in the personal ways we used. 

  • Spot the Scam:  The message comes as a surprise and you can’t reach your friend through other methods, such as by phone, except the digital way in which you received the message.   
  • How they trick us:  We are convinced that the communication is actually coming from our friend and we do not know that their account was likely hacked or a fake account was created to solicit you.  
  • Scam Prevention:  Take steps to verify, even if the solicitor requests you not to tell others. A phone call to the person directly or another who is aware of the person’s whereabouts is key here.   

Fake news and affiliated endorsement of cure-all products:  Scammers will take advantage of consumers accessing news online and claim to have exclusive cures and vaccines.    

  • Spot the Scam:  The news popped up in a social media feed, in an email, or in a news alert with a media name you did not recognize. The information is not verified in other reputable news sources, or through a known health organization.   
  • How they trick us:  The alerts and ads use compelling stories and scare tactics that trigger us to respond emotionally, rather than rationally, to false promises.   
  • Scam Prevention:  Regularly check-in with trusted websites, such as the CDC and Vermont Department of Health for updates on the status of the virus and how it is being treated.  

Fake charities:  As is common with disaster and crisis scams, consumers can expect fake charity scams to prey on their generosity to help others in need.  They will most definitely occur online but may also occur by phone.      

  • Spot the Scam:  Unsolicited requests for donations by a charity you have never heard of and cannot verify.   
  • How they trick us:  They take advantage of our desire to help others and the sense of urgency to respond.   
  • Scam Prevention:  Verify the charity by using websites like Charity Navigator and the BBB’s Giving Wise Alliance.  Always request solicitations in written form to give you time to do your research and consider the ask. Give to known charities and assign designation to specific causes. 

This is not a comprehensive list of the scams that may be encountered online.  New scams will develop, and when they do, we ask that you share the information with your community as well as with the Consumer Assistance Program at ago.cap@vermont.gov . 

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. 

Friendly Advice

This week, during National Consumer Protection week, our staff members are opening up and sharing stories of when they were scammed. Because no one is invincible to being #scammed. Let’s keep the dialogue moving, share this post and your own scam stories and lessons learned.

While the internet is an incredible tool, it’s also a scammers’ playground.  I encountered a Craigslist scam while searching for a new apartment, and the experience has stuck with me. I hope that others can learn from my encounter with a scammer.

Two years ago, I found myself scouring the internet almost daily as I searched for apartment leads in the Burlington area. One day, I came upon an amazing find on Craigslist, and I knew I had to act fast. It was a beautiful two-bedroom apartment near the lake with a brand-new kitchen and a backyard. It looked amazing and the price was irresistible!

Using the Craigslist “email” option, I contacted the person who had put up the post. I provided them with my phone number and expressed that I was very interested. Shortly thereafter, I received a text message:

Thanks for your interest in the apartment. I am in Florida on business so I can’t show you the place right now, but if you to send me the deposit in the mail the place is yours. Get back to me as soon as possible.

Something didn’t seem right. Feeling uncomfortable and confused, I showed the text message to my friends. “That’s a scam!” they said. My friends encouraged me to look on Zillow.com to see if photos from the Craigslist ad had been stolen from someone else’s listing—and they had! The person who posted on Craigslist had copied all the photos from a legitimate Zillow.com listing and was attempting to get money from desperate apartment-seekers.

At this point in the story, I felt embarrassed and angry. Why would someone do this? How could I have fallen for it? And how are they getting away with something so wrong?

This time, I was lucky. I didn’t send the deposit and I flagged the ad for Craigslist. My friends were there for me and provided much needed advice. Sometimes a second-opinion is all you need to spot a scam.

Here are my scam lessons learned:

  1. Be careful when searching online listings – if it looks too good to be true, it probably is!
  2. Always see an apartment in-person before committing to a lease.
  3. Do not provide a deposit until you have signed a lease.
  4. Get a second opinion: if you come across something that doesn’t feel right, ask a trusted friend or family member for advice.
  5. Never pay for online purchases using cash, money order, bank check, personal check, wire transfer, gift cards (outside the merchant’s website), peer-to-peer payment, bitcoin, and any other option that is not a credit card or known transmitter.

Have you ever been scammed? Tell us about it. Share this post and your own scam stories and lessons learned. The best form of prevention is awareness.

Contributing Writer: Madison Braz

Buying and Selling on Online Listing Sites

Most Vermonters love a good deal.  So, we know how appealing it can be to search for discounted products through online listing sites.  And, when the deal of the century is finally located, we know how easy it is to want to act quickly, rather than question if the deal is too good to be true. But sometimes the most important thing you can do is stop and verify an online offer before you pay.

At CAP, we typically hear about the times people get scammed online, rather than the times they found a great deal.  Vermonters report scams to our office so we can assist them if there is a way to recoup their money and so that other consumers are made aware that there are scammers lurking online, looking to take your money without earning it.  A couple of weeks ago, we heard from a gentleman hoping to close a deal on purchasing an excavator.  He fulfilled his end of the deal by wiring more than $16,000.  After receiving the funds, the scammer went dark.  This Vermonter was lured into the scam through a blatant lie; from a Craigslist post, he was connected to a realistic-looking eBay site to fulfill his order.  The site however, was not eBay.  The money that was wired was gone within a few moments.

Last year (2016) 122 Vermont consumers reported online listing scams to our office. And, fourteen people reported monetary loss due to wire transferring funds in response to an online listing. The year before (2015) nineteen people reported loss by wire transfer.

Listing scams take on many forms.  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.  Sometimes the item being sold is a used car, riding lawnmower, or construction equipment.

Scams even happen when you are looking for that perfect puppy or pet to expand your family, but the transport of the animal is held up at the airport or elsewhere.  People have reported trying to buy wedding dresses, only to be bilked of their wedding budget due to scam activity.  The point here is, listing scams can happen with any kind of product or service when you least expect it.  The key to prevention is knowing the signs, taking an extra moment to verify an online offer before you pay, and if you are the victim of a scam report it to our office.

The Attorney General will continue to alert Vermonters about new and ongoing scams.  In the meantime, here are some helpful tips to help you avoid online scams:

Tips to prevent Online Listing scams

Contributing Writer:  Crystal Baldwin