You are busy in your work, helping people with critical problems when you get the call, “There is a bench warrant against you for not appearing in court.” Your first thought might be, “What does that even mean?” Your second thought: “How do I make it go away?”
The Consumer Assistance Program was recently notified about a rush of legal authority imposter scam calls reaching doctor’s offices in the Rutland area. In the scams reported, caller identification numbers were spoofed to appear as the “Rutland County Sheriff.” When doctors and staff questioned the legitimacy, they were told to “go ahead and call the sheriff directly.” When some did, the scam was confirmed. There was no bench warrant and paying these criminals on the spot would have resolved nothing anyway.
What has been quite a surprise to these practitioners, has presented itself as one of the more common scams state-wide. In 2021, CAP recorded 277 reports of the Legal Authority Imposter Scam and nearly $200,000 in cumulative loss by six Vermonters. In this scam, a call comes in unexpectedly, claiming to be someone of legal authority: a sheriff, police officer, law office, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, for example. The caller expresses an urgent distressing problem, often threatening arrest, and eventually requests payment for the problem to go away.
What to do?
Never send callers money, especially in response to threats or claims of legal action.
If you are concerned about a bench warrant, contact your legal counsel or the court directly.
Hang up on all threats and report them.
If you were going to be sued, the papers would be served without notice.
Harassing debt collection practice is unlawful, and collectors aren’t allowed to make claims they can’t or won’t pursue. Learn more about your rights.
Learn more about the process of law to avoid scams. Most typically, if ordered to pay an amount, even by the court, there will be a clearly outlined process to follow to ensure payment goes to the right place. When a scammer claims legal action, research what it is and is not.
What is a bench warrant?
If you fail to show up in court when required (usually you are served notice by mail or by a Sheriff by hand delivery prior to the required court appearance), the judge may order for you to be detained or arrested. A bench warrant is more likely to be granted when a criminal defendant is on bail, or a subpoenaed witness fails to show up for trial. The bench warrant essentially orders you to go appear before the bench. (Cornell Law, nolo.com)
How do I make a bench warrant go away?
If you actually have a bench warrant against you, contact your attorney or public defender. A bench warrant calls for your appearance in court, so your appearance in court is what is necessary–and not the payment of funds like the scammers suggest.
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. 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. We work in partnership with the Community of Vermont Elders (COVE), FAST of Vermont and local community partners to provide referrals and resources to victims of scams. In addition, CAP connects with service providers and local community organizations to provide training and scam prevention presentations.
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: 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.
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 connect usually through social media and pose to be someone you trust and care for. After the trust has been developed, they claim they are in an emergency to convince you to send them money or will ask you for a favor. Scammers impersonate a love interest and play on your fears to have you send money urgently.
How to spot the scam: Use reverse image searches to look up images of the person; if ther are many results, the contact may be using someone else’s image and is a scam. Video chat on your terms and at random times. If they are typically unavailable, they may be scamming someone else.
What to do: consult with your close in person contacts and reach out to an organization in your life who cares. They may spot something you don’t. Never send money to someone you have not met in person.
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 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: 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.
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 suspicious 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 in 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.
Financial Advisor/ Investment Imposter
The scam: Scammers are spoofing websites and using fake social media accounts to obscure their identities. Scammers also pose an imposter friend with an investment tip. Investors should always take steps to identify phony accounts by looking closely at content, analyzing dates of inception and considering the quality of engagement. To ensure investors do not accidently deal with an imposter firm, pay careful attention to domain names and learn more about how to protect your online accounts.
How to spot the scam: Beware of fake client reviews. Scammers often reference or publish positive, yet bogus testimonials purportedly drafted by satisfied customers. These testimonials create the appearance the promoter is reliable – he or she has already earned significant profits in the past, and new investors can reap the same financial benefits as prior investors.
What to do: The North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) recommends investors independently research registration of investment firms.
A National Consumer Protection Week feature. “National Consumer Protection Week (NCPW) is a time to help people understand their consumer rights and avoid frauds and scams” (FTC).
Government Impersonation scams were the top fraud reported between 2014-2021, with a total reported loss of $442.21 million according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). In 2020, with the popularity of the Social Security Imposter scams increasing steadily to date, the Social Security Administration Office of the Inspector General dedicated a day during National Consumer Protection Week as National SLAM the SCAM Day, to remind individuals of how to spot these pesky scam calls. The goal of Slam the Scam is to raise awareness during Consumer Protection Week on prevalent government imposter scams and invite consumers to slam down the phone on these scammers! In honor of SLAM the SCAM Day, the Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) is reminding you to SLAM the SCAM and hang up on government imposters.
Receiving a call from someone claiming to be from the government can be alarming. These calls can be threatening in nature, claiming your personal information or identification was involved in a crime, or money is owed to a federal agency. On the other hand, sometimes these calls are more positive which offer fake opportunities for government grants, entitlements, or benefits. In 2021, the FTC reporteda[TM1] total of 396,302 scam reports relating to government imposters. In Vermont, government and legal authority imposter scams clocked in at the fourth most reported scam last year. This accounts for 9% of the 5,154 scams reported to the Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) in 2021, compared to 41% of the top scams reported to CAP in 2018. While the FTC numbers can be startling, there has been an average 7.3% yearly decrease of reported loss to government imposters, meaning consumers did not provide funds. To continue the declining trend of loss to scams, we need your help. To help reduce these fraudulent attempts, CAP will break down popular government imposter scams to help 1) identify the scam, 2) review what to know about the scam, and 3) provide some tips on how to navigate government impersonation scams.
Hang Up on Government Imposters!
Social Security Number Phishing
Identify It: You may get a call, text, email, or even a direct message on a social media platform from someone claiming to be from the Social Security Administration or Magistrate’s Office. The scammer may claim your Social Security benefits are ending or will be suspended unless funds or personal information about yourself is provided. Sometimes there are even threats of arrest or legal action to be taken against you. They will ask you to pay with gift cards, wire transfers, peer-to-peer payment methods (EX: Zelle, Venmo, PayPal, CashApp, etc.), or mailing cash. We have also seen an increase in requesting cryptocurrency, as these transactions are untraceable.
What to Know: The Social Security Administration would never call you threatening to cut off benefits or suspend your Social Security number. Instead, these are scammers looking to steal your money and identity by gathering your personal information. The Social Security Administration would never contact you via text message, email, or through social media. The only time Social Security will contact you by phone is if you request a call from them. Otherwise, most if not all correspondence occurs through mail. A legitimate government agency would never request money be sent by wire transfer, gift cards, pay with cryptocurrency, or mailing cash. Ignore these fraudulent attempts, and if the call is a robocall, do not press any buttons. If you need to speak with the Social Security Administration, call your local office using the Social Security Office Locator. You may also report the scam directly to the Social Security Administration Office of the Inspector General.
Identify It: Scammers will call, often from a spoofed caller ID number, and pose as Medicare or Medicaid representatives to gain your personal information and money. CAP finds these scams are most frequent during times of open enrollment. The scammers will state they need your Medicare/Medicaid 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”. They may claim to be offering sought-after medical supplies or test kits in exchange for your ID.
What to Know: Never provide your Medicare number or other personal information and payment to unknown callers. In general, Medicare cards do not expire. Medicaid, on the other hand, provides coverage for a year with the option to renew yearly. This is done through Vermont Health Connect or Department of Vermont Health Access through the Agency of Human Services. 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 Medicare 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. 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.
Identify It: The scammers will call claiming that they are from the IRS and that you owe them for back taxes. Sometimes the call will begin with a robocall asking you to press a number or to confirm your personal information. They will ask you to pay immediately, and the caller might threaten you to say that the local police will arrest you, legal action will be taken, or your tax documentation will be suspended if you don’t pay. They could even provide some legitimate information like your Social Security number to make you believe that they are related to the IRS, but they are using this call to gain money and more information from you. The scammer usually requests the payment in a specific way, such as wire transfers, access to bank accounts, gift cards, mailed cash, or cryptocurrency.
What to Know: If the IRS contacts you, it would be by mail, not by phone unless you requested a callback. They may call you only after sending you two letters by mail. The IRS will never ask you to pay debts by phone, nor demand a particular payment method. Lastly, legitimate IRS employees will never threaten you. If you didn’t receive written notification about a tax issue and receive a call claiming to be from the IRS, don’t engage. Do not press any numbers, give personal information, or provide funds. This could lead to more scam calls. In this situation, the better thing to do is hang up the phone.
Identify it: The scammer will pose as a police officer, an attorney, or any person with legal authority. They will mention pending lawsuits or government debts involving you and will threaten arrest or legal action. The solution provided by the scammer is to send money, and your problem will disappear. But they will call again, saying that something went wrong, often requesting more money. Variations of this scam can involve immigration issues and the scammer using your legal status in the U.S. to threaten you with deportation and visa revocation.
What to Know: Law enforcement agents, like police officers, sheriffs, or other government employees, will not warn you ahead of time about pending warrants. If you were going to be sued, the papers would be served without notice. The government will never call and threaten you. The best thing to do is hang up the phone and call the legitimate agency’s phone number to check about possible lawsuits, immigration status, and debts. If you are concerned about your immigration application, petition, or status, contact the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services directly.
More Government Impersonation Scams
United States Postal Service (USPS)
Identify It: You may receive a call, email, or most commonly a text from a number you do not recognize, with a “tracking link” for a package or a notice a package was unable to be delivered by USPS. Scammers may also claim to be from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) regarding a package containing illicit items. In the communication, there may be a number to call or a link to view the tracking information. Once connected with the scammers, you are prompted to pay a fine to avoid arrest or legal action. You may also be prompted to provide additional personal information about yourself to ensure the package can be delivered. In terms of employment opportunities at USPS, please be aware of where the job is being posted and what the scammers are asking for. Offers are created to be enticing by alleging outlandish benefits, guaranteed jobs, or claim they will hire you on the spot.
What to Know: If you are not opted in for text communications from USPS or receive a text from a number not associated with USPS, this is a scam. Additionally, if you were not planning on receiving a package, chances are it is not legitimate. If you receive a package that you did not order, mark it “return to sender” and bring the package to your local mail carrier. If you are questioning if the claimed delivery is real, call your local USPS office to confirm if a package exists. If you are given a tracking number, you can check the legitimacy by using USPS’s Tracking page. U.S. Customs and Boarder Protection posted a press release a few months ago, warning consumers about this scam as well.
Government Funds (grants and unclaimed funds)
Identify It: These types of imposter scams focus on a variation of “free money” scams while pretending to be calling from a government agency. CAP receives the occasional notice about a scam call that claims to be from the State Treasurer, claiming there is “Unclaimed Property” for the individual to claim. Unclaimed Property is any lost or abandoned money that someone has not claimed, usually from past business dealings such as refunds and rebates, an overpayment on an account, or funds that were unclaimed in a financial account that was closed. In order to release those funds, the scammer will ask a fee to be paid, generally claiming the money is for tax purposes or interest on the funds. CAP has also received reports regarding the “Community Development Block Grant” or other government grants, where individuals have received texts and social media messages from fake profiles pretending to be a government employee. You are prompted to provide personal information and told you must pay a fee to receive your grant money.
What to Know: You would never have to pay money to claim your “Unclaimed Property” through the Office of the State Treasurer. You do not have to pay a fee to claim your Unclaimed Property. You may file for your Unclaimed Property online or by mail with the Office of the State Treasurer. To find out more about unclaimed property, go to USA.gov. The government does not contact you about available grants, you contact them. Legitimate grants require an application and are to be used for specific purposes. In addition, if you did apply for a grant, you do not need to pay money to receive the grant. You may find available federal grants at grants.gov.
How to Navigate Government Impersonation Scams:
If you suspect that you are being targeted by a scam, the best thing you can do is not respond. If you receive a scam call, SLAM the SCAM by hanging up! Do not call back the number. If you get an email, text message, or social media direct message, do not engage and mark the correspondence as “Junk/Spam” or delete the message. NEVER give out any personal information, money, or allow access to your devices to someone claiming to be from the government. If you are worried the claims may be true, contact the department directly using a trusted number. If you cannot find one, call CAP to inquire about legitimate contact information. Report scam encounters to CAP. Please see below for information on how to report scams to our office.
Do not trust caller ID. Instead, vet your calls by listening to your voicemail messages. Scammers are known to “spoof” legitimate phone numbers and names of government agencies, using fake identification of government and law enforcement agencies. These scammers can use aggressive tones or create a sense of urgency to provide the information or funds they are requesting. Often, the scammers will say not to tell anyone you spoke with them and to keep your conversation a secret. Do not isolate. Tell a trusted friend, family member, or member of your community to help you navigate this situation. CAP cares and is here to talk with you about the scam call you received.