BURLINGTON – The Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) is warning Vermont business owners, non-profits, and employees about an uptick in business imposter email scams. In the last two months, CAP has received five reports of business imposter email scams resulting in a total loss of $210,799. Scammers are impersonating employees or familiar business representatives’ emails and contacting company bookkeepers and office administrators asking them to change bank account information, direct deposit information, or asking them to write checks. By impersonating an employee’s email address or creating a fake personal email for the employee, scammers can steal money from businesses and steal paychecks from employees.
Vermont businesses and non-profits should always verify email addresses and speak directly with an employee or business representative in person or via phone when sending money or changing payment information. Oftentimes, scammers will use an email address that only slightly varies from an employee’s true email. Be wary of any email coming from outside your company’s domain. CAP urges business owners to educate their entire company on scams that target businesses.
Here are ways in which businesses and non-profits can better protect themselves and their employees from scams:
Cybersecurity assessment: check internal controls and resolve vulnerabilities.
Train staff regularly in cybersecurity and funds management protocols.
Enlist internal protocols to verify the transfer of funds by engaging multiple staff members and voice verification, using trusted contact information.
Help clientele identify common scams within the industry.
TheSLOW method can serve as a helpful starting point, encouraging parties to take their time during urgent transactions and connect with a trusted party like CAP.
Computer tech support scammers are imposters that immediately gain trust by using well-known company names like Norton, Microsoft, or Apple, or by expressing a desire to help fix a daunting problem. Ranking third among the scams with the highest dollar loss, $695,240, in Vermont in 2021, this scam is historically successful due to its ability to establish a sense of familiarity and legitimacy garnered by the scammer’s suggested affiliation with a company and their technical prowess.
In the computer tech support scam, you are contacted by phone, pop-up or email on your computer. The message spikes your anxiety and drives your response to be reactive. Tech scammers may claim, “There is a virus on your device,” “Your security subscription has been automatically renewed,” or “You have been charged for a year’s subscription of antivirus.” In the communication, a link or phone number is included, which you are urged to contact immediately to rectify the issue.
While in reaction mode, you call, hoping to resolve the issue. During the call, the scammer will try to persuade you to give remote access to your device to fix the problem, and sometimes will ask for immediate payment for their services. In scenarios where a refund is requested, they facilitate what appears to be a transfer of funds by walking you through steps to log into your own online bank account. Utilizing their program and ability to freely roam on your computer while they have remote access, they disguise the origin of the funds transfer, which is in actuality a transfer of funds between your own bank accounts.
Tech support scammers further escalate the call, using high tones of voice, demands of urgency, and call on your empathy to help solve a problem they created. The scammer’s tactics pull the recipient of the scam further into reaction mode. While in reaction mode, responses are based on impulse and with little additional collective data. Once a person has more information, through the process of asking questions and seeking out resources, the ability to think critically and problem-solve the issue comes back online.
For this scam and consumer transactions generally, you can apply the SLOW method to disrupt the unpredictable reaction response by substituting a planned response instead. At the onset of the first communication, start with SLOW as a strategy to help you take steps to verify.
S – Slow down – scammers pressure you to react urgently. Don’t! Instead, take a breath and find your calm by doing what is immediately natural to you.
L – Log the contact – write down the information of the email, or phone call. If they are on the phone, you can tell them you will call them back, even if you don’t intend to. Then, disengage.
O – One call – make one call to a primary contact, such as a friend or family member and discuss the incident. It works best if you have pre-established who this will be; someone you can trust no matter what. The contact is a sounding board, who will ask questions and help you get curious about the interaction. Some questions might include:
How do I know the contact is who they say they are? –What proof is there? Where can I verify their contact information that is not part of the communication I received? –Was my credit card charged? What other parties can I contact that might know more about this? How can I be sure this is not a scam?
W – Who cares? Contact another party or organization in your life who cares. The Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) can help you identify scams and report them: 1-800-649-2424 and ago.vermont.gov/cap
Know what to watch out for in computer tech scams, so you can avoid them:
Be wary of pop-ups and unexpected emails/phone calls.
Watch out for security warnings and account renewals.
Don’t trust contact information, like links, URLs and phone numbers provided in unexpected emails.
Never click on links or provide remote access to your computer from an unknown email or source.
If you received an email or pop-up message, you cannot click out of, don’t engage. Instead, shut down, restart, or unplug your device.
If you get a call from “tech support,” hang up.
Be careful when searching for tech support online. Some users have been scammed by calling illegitimate phone numbers listed on the internet.
In the age of the internet and free flowing technology scammers hope to capitalize at every turn. You can prevent scams by practicing SLOW in all your consumer transactions now—and commit to being a primary contact for others. Everyone can help stop scams by following a scam prevention plan and sharing scam knowledge with your community.
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).
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:
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.
Check the Secretary of State’s websiteto verify that the residential contractor is registered, as required by Vermont law.
Review complaint history posted on websites like BBB.org.
Contact the Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) and ask if any complaints have been filed against the contract you are considering.
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:
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 all 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.
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.
ADDENDUM: As of April 1, 2023, registration of certain residential contractors is required. Learn more about the requirements from the Office of Professional Regulation of the Vermont Secretary of State.