Home Improvement Fraud Has No Boundaries

By Cristina Leiva

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). 

Fraud has no boundaries: Protect your home from home improvement fraud.
Protect Your Home from Home Improvement Fraud

Improving your home can be an overwhelming process to complete on your own. Turning to a contractor can help relieve the stress, but homeowners should be aware of the existence of home improvement fraud.

Home improvement fraud happens when a contractor promises to improve your home, but leaves the project incomplete or your home in an uninhabitable condition.

Before hiring a contractor for a home improvement project, do your research:

  1. Start by reviewing the Vermont Attorney General’s Home Improvement Fraud Registry where you’ll find the names of individuals who have been criminally convicted of committing home improvement fraud in Vermont.
  2. Review complaint history posted on websites like BBB.org.
  3. Contact the Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) and ask if any complaints have been filed against the contract you are considering.
  4. Ask your friends, neighbors, family, and co-workers about their home improvement experiences. These individuals are more than just connections; they are resources that can provide contractor references and warnings.

Tips for avoiding home improvement fraud:

  • Ask the contractor for references. Then, call the references and ask detailed questions about the work done, satisfaction, price, the time it took to complete, and how they found the contractor.
  • Find your contractor through trusted family or friends or trusted websites.
  • Pay in increments rather than a large sum/total payment upfront.
  • Once you’ve chosen who you want to hire, determine the exact timeframe and the estimated price for the job. Compare this price to makeups for similar projects (get at least three estimates).
  • Get all agreements in a written contract. Verbal statements are difficult to prove.
  • Keep your down payment to a minimum.
  • If possible, make your payment upon completion of the work; or at least make payments as the equivalent portion of the work is completed. That way, if the contractor walks off the job, you haven’t lost any money.
  • Don’t make the final payment until you are completely satisfied with the work.
  • Always request proof of insurance.

Warning signs of less than reputable contractors:

  • Door-to-door solicitations.
  • Claims that the contractor was passing by and noticed a problem with your home.
  • Discounts for finding other customers or to use your home as a demo model.
  • Offers a good price for materials left over from a previous job.
  • Only accept cash payments.
  • Uses high-pressure sales tactics and demands a decision on the spot.
  • Asks you to pay for the entire job or a substantial portion of the job up front.
  • Suggests that you borrow money from a lender the contractor knows.
  • Refuses to provide proof of insurance or legitimate contact info.

Before hiring a contractor, you should know that while Vermont law does not require home improvement contracts to be in writing, you can request a written contract outlining the terms of the agreement. If there isn’t a written contract, the contractor may disclaim liability for complications, or dispute the agreed-upon terms. When considering a contract, it’s best to read each page and verify acceptance before you sign it. Fraudulent contractors could conceal important documents underneath the agreement that could have dire consequences, including the loss of your home.  

Avoid home improvement by: Ask trusted family, friends, and neighbors for references.
Get a list of clientele recommendations from the contractor.
Research online and read reviews: 
Check online and CAP complaint history and the HIF Registry.
Contract Tips:
Get it in writing!
Pay in increments rather than full payment.
Avoid:
Door-to-door solicitors.
High-pressure sales.
Requirements to pay for the entire job or a substantial portion of the job up front. VT Consumer Assistance Program. 1-800-649-2424.
Avoid Home Improvement Fraud by the Consumer Assistance Program

If you have a problem with a home improvement project or want to research a contractor before hiring them, contact CAP for assistance by visiting ago.vermont.gov/cap or by calling 1-800-649-2424.

Free COVID-19 Test-Kit Scams

By Crystal Baldwin and Cristina Leiva

A National Consumer Protection Week feature and second in a Two-Part Series on COVID-19 Test Kits. “National Consumer Protection Week (NCPW) is a time to help people understand their consumer rights and avoid frauds and scams” (FTC). 

Earlier this week, it was announced that Americans can order more free at-home COVID-19 tests from the U.S. government at COVIDtests.gov. This second round of tests are available for free through COVIDtests.gov. There are no shipping costs, and you don’t have to give a credit card or bank account number. You only need to give a name and address. Once you place an order, you’ll get an order confirmation number. If you give your email address, you’ll also get an order confirmation email and delivery updates. Anyone who asks for more information than that is a scammer.


Don’t get scammed when doing your part to get tested!

Scammers love when things are offered for free because they can quickly create a website making the same claim, while requiring personal information and payment for additional charges like “shipping/handling” or “expediting” or “priority service”. They seize the opportunity to cash in when emotions are high—which is the case when trying to stay healthy amid a global pandemic.   

COVID-19 TEST-KIT SCAM ALERT: Unsolicited requests for your health insurance information, phony offers for FREE test kits asking for payment, Peer-to-peer sellers.
COVID-19 Test-Kit Scam Alert by CAP

COVID-19 Test Kit Scams Might Look Like:

  • Unsolicited requests for your health insurance information, such as Medicare, in exchange for free test kits.
  • Phony offers of FREE test kits with payment required, such as for shipping/handling.
  • Peer-to-peer sellers: Friends, family, neighbors and others on Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist and other listing sites.
  • Unreputable vendors in retail pop-up shops or online.
  • The sale of invalid COVID-19 test kits.
  • Unsolicited offers to obtain free test kits, such as through telemarketing, email, and other unverified channels.

Hang up on solicitations claiming to offer free test kits in exchange for your personal information, insurance, or money! If you are looking for free test kits, seek them out through valid sources outlined in the Consumer Assistance Program’s free COVID-19 test kits blog.

Look out for these red flags:

  • Requests to pay a fee for free tests.
  • Claims of expedited delivery with additional payment.
  • Receiving results after you sign up and pay, but before you’ve been tested.
  • Tests that are not FDA authorized.

If you have encountered a free COVID-19 test scam, report it to the Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) through CAP’s online scam reporting form.  

Regarding COVID-19 updates and information, the best place in Vermont to check is the Vermont Department of Health.

Resources: COVIDtests.gov, Vermont Department of Health

When Love is a Scam

By Crystal Baldwin

Love fills us with joy, lifts us up, and makes us feel alive. As determined by a recent Stanford University study, for many, love is found online.  

Says "Click for Love" with Heart and Clouds

Technological advances and the move of our social lives and networks to online platforms has shifted the dating world to unchartered territory–online dating websites (Match, Zoosk, OurTime, Plenty of Fish, OKCupid, eHarmony), dating apps (Bumble, Tinder, Hinge), gaming platforms (Words With Friends, Sociable, Yahtzee with Buddies) and unassuming networks (Facebook, Instagram). As if the dating world were not challenging enough to navigate. Now, those looking for love must also learn how to create a true connection through tech, while avoiding scammers.

New data from the Federal Trade Commission show that more consumers than ever report falling prey to romance scammers

Consumers reported losing $547 million in 2021 alone.

Reported losses to romance scammers were up nearly 80 percent compared to 2020.

Federal Trade Commission
Avoiding the Romance Scam Video – Learn more at ago.vermont.gov/cap/romance-imposter

At the end of last year, our office released a video and toolkit alerting Vermonters about imposter romance scams that can take place on dating platforms. Before looking for love online, check out the video and tools we created to help you to identify unscrupulous love interests and relationships of confidence.

You can find love online and avoid scams. Print out our helpful verification flyer and reference it often.

To avoid romance scams...Search the internet to verify a person's identity. Never send money/personal information to someone you have not met in person. Don't trust anyone who: refuses to provide additional photos of themselves. Requests money for financial support. Refuses to chat with you through webcam. Provides excuses as to why you can't meet.
Tips to avoid romance scams by the Consumer Assistance Program

If you or someone you know has encountered a scam in Vermont, report it. Use CAP’s online scam reporting form and visit the our scam recovery webpage.  

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

Resources: FTC.gov, news.stanford.edu

Your Face is Data. What Can Scammers Do with it?

How often do you use your face to unlock your phone? Gain access to your bank account? Turn on your car? With the evolution of technology, facial recognition software has become essential in our everyday activities. A simple scan of your facial features can provide access to so much. This realization came to me as a consumer reported an incident where a scammer asked her to download a facial recognition app and submit a scan of her face.

“Criminals who have collected enough personal information on you could commit identity fraud.”

Equifax

Your face can be used in crimes, either targeting you or as an accomplice to one. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on synthetic identity fraud: “a fast-growing type of financial crime where fraudsters use an amalgamation of real and fake information to create a new identity.” Thanks to your facial features, a scammer can bypass facial authentication systems, making the scammer’s face challenging to identify, because “attackers are typically unwilling to use their real face when committing a crime.” And who’s to say you didn’t commit a crime when your face is all over the issue?

There are numerous concerns about the fraudulent activity that can occur because of criminals gaining access to your face. Thankfully there are already a few companies working on this issue:

  • Apple’s camera projects more than 30,000 invisible dots to create depth maps of a person’s face while also capturing an infrared image of the face making it the most difficult to fool, and it’s also good to note that a user’s Face ID never leaves the iPhone.
  • Some banks and financial service companies use third-party facial identification services and request additional verification information; if it so happens that the facial ID is not recognized and gets flagged, a human reviewer will take a look and conclude the analysis.

Your face can be captured anywhere; all that is needed is a clear image. There’s a lack of privacy on how individuals can gain access to your face because your face can be captured just by walking past a camera outside—you likely aren’t aware of it.

What can you do?

Always be careful about who you allow access to your face.

Avoid Facial Identity Fraud: -Be mindful of where you post pictures of your face online and set profiles to private to help protect your identity.
-Use two-factor authentication when it’s available-Use facial recognition sparingly and only with companies you know and trust-Do reverse-image searches of your face online to see if it shows up in unexpected places-Monitor your credit report and financial accounts and review for suspicious activity to determine if financial theft is occurring
Avoid Facial Identity Fraud – Tips from the VT Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program

Navigating the identity theft recovery process can be overwhelming. Vermonters with questions about the process can call the Consumer Assistance Program at 1-800-649-2424 or the Federal Trade Commission at 1-877-438-4338. 

Contributing Writer: Cristina Leiva

Content Editor: Crystal Baldwin

Resources: Equifax, The Wall Street Journal, WeLiveSecurely.com

TOP 10 SCAMS OF 2021 RELEASED BY THE ATTORNEY GENERAL’S OFFICE

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.         

The prevalence of internet-based scams in 2021 sends a clear message about the importance of staying safe online in our social and work lives. If you receive a suspicious contact, whether it’s made by email, online message, or phone, know that CAP is here to help.

Vermont Attorney general t.j. donovan

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:

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.

CAP Assistant Director on Across The Fence reviewing VT’s Top 10 Scams of 2021

The Top 10 Scams of 2021:

  1. Computer Tech Support (Variation)
  2. Social Security Number Phishing
  3. Computer Tech Support (Traditional)
  4. Legal Authority Imposter
  5. Sweepstakes/Lotteries
  6. Identity Theft
  7. Online Listings
  8. Medicare Card Phishing
  9. Family Emergency/Imposter
  10. Auto Warranty Expiration
The Top 10 Scams Reported to the Vermont Attorney General's Consumer Assistance Program in 2021
The Top 10 Scams Reported to the Vermont Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program in 2021

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.