Identity Theft and Phishing

By Crystal Baldwin

When I presented on the topic of identity theft a decade ago, the concept seemed somewhat distant, impacting few individuals with identity thieves using dated and laborious tactics to steal identities.  A section of my presentation was devoted to informing about dumpster diving—the fact that people can get a lot of information about your identity from the trash you discard—and encouraging shredding as an identity theft prevention step.  Another section focused on phishing and educating about what phishing is; not to be confused with fishing, except metaphorically of course. 

Protect yourself from Identity Theft! Safeguard your personal information.  Verify requests for information. Shred documents using a cross cutting shredder.

In the age of the robocall and the internet, phishing and identity theft have become more sophisticated in that scammers can make the same automated call to many people at once and data security breaches expose consumers to widespread identity theft.   

Even with advances in technology, identity thieves can still obtain your personal information by rummaging through your trash and phishing.  To demonstrate, let’s take a quiz: 

What do you do with your expired credit card when a replacement arrives in the mail? 

A. Cut it down the middle and throw it out.  The card cannot be used once the magnetic strip is severed.  

B. Run it through a straight-line shredding machine. The card will be of no use when made into little strips.  

C. Cut it into as many small pieces as possible, either with scissors or a cross-cutting shredder. Throw out the pieces in different trash bags. It will be virtually impossible to decipher the card with it in so many pieces and places. 

D. Discard as it is.  Without additional instruction from the bank, no additional steps are necessary.  The card is of no use once it expires. 

My answer is C: Cut the card into a million pieces and discard in multiple places.  Why?  Because even though the card is expired, with card updates the card number stays the same.  Once a determined scammer has obtained the card, all they need to do is follow up with a strategic phishing phone call to you.  When they call, they may claim to be your financial institution and ask a series of phishing questions, which exposes other important numbers about the valid card in your possession: the expiration date and the CCV.   

What exactly is phishing?  

A. A sport of catching fish, using a fishing pole. 

B. A fun excursion with Vermont Phish Phans.  

C. The fraudulent attempt to obtain your personal information or data. 

D. Testing the water pH before ice fishing.  

Hopefully this quiz question was easier.  The answer is also C.   

Identity thieves phish for information about you, your Social Security number, your bank account number, your credit card and debit card numbers, your birthday, and more in order to use the information for their own financial gain.  When an email purports to be your bank, saying you have been locked out of your account and you must login using the enclosed link, a scammer hopes you provide them all of your personal information by completing their realistic-looking bogus form.  Once you have, they can access and use your account.  And, depending on the information you have provided, they may also open up new lines of credit in your name without your knowledge or consent.  Identity thieves have opened home loans, car loans and credit cards.  They usually don’t pay the bills they run up, creating a mountain of work for you to dispute debts you do not owe.  

Phishing scammers may contact you by email, phone, text message, and any other communication mechanism you use currently, including social media.  Phishing scams often present a problem that must be solved by you disclosing some personal information.  They may even pretend to be your computer company, warning about viruses that need to be repaired on your computer.  They offer to help you resolve your virus problem, if you grant them access to your computer and, unknowingly, your personal information stored on your computer.  Phishing scammers may also say a package will soon be delivered to you and you must reply if you did not order a product, or else your credit card will be charged. Then when you call, they ask for your credit card number. 

Protect yourself from phishing scams! Scammers claim to be someone you know. They present a problem that can only be resolved by providing personal info or money, they may contact you by phone, email, text, mail, and even social media.

Phishing scams can be tricky, because there are scenarios in which a bank institution may contact you, such as if there has been fraudulent activity on your credit card. Scammers take advantage of this and try to replicate it.  Rather than trying to determine the difference between a scam call and a call from your bank, take out the guesswork by disconnecting the contact and calling your bank directly on a number you know to be valid.   

Resist the impulse to reply to urgent requests of phishing scammers.  By slowing down and taking steps to verify, you can stop phishing scammers from reeling you into their trap. 

Help CAP prevent scams by sharing this information with your community.  Have a scam to report? Use CAP’s online scam reporting form

For more information about identity theft, visit our website

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.  

Puppy Love

By Crystal Baldwin 

Nothing quite beats puppy snuggles to lift spirits and brighten moods. Though I speak now mostly from personal experience as the owner of a sweet cuddly chihuahua, Bobby, my sweeping generalization is based in fact. Loving on animals induces the cuddle chemical, oxytocin, giving the body a calming feel-good rush. Who couldn’t use a bit of pick-me-up right now?  

Lap dog Bobby snuggling

I know I’ve been cuddling with my dog more. I feel lucky to have him and to have purchased him as a purebred puppy for the discount price of $225 from a legitimate breeder in Kentucky when I lived there. $225 was a steal for my companion. In retrospect, I would have paid much more for him and the joy he has brought my life. And realistically, I know many Vermonters do. They spend hours searching for the perfect pet to expand their family and when found, spare no expense to bring them home. 

Sadly, scammers know this. They’ve devised skilled, deceitful plans to connect you with fake puppy companions, take your money, and give you nothing in return—except, perhaps, a broken heart. These scammers are mostly lurking in indiscreet corners of the internet, posting poached photos of someone else’s pets, claiming they are for sale and that they’ll ship them to you. Sometimes they’ll claim you can get the pet for the unbelievable price I paid, $225 or less. Sometimes they claim the pet is free but you must pay shipment fees or for medical complications that arose. Drawn by the plethora of adorable photos and the anticipation to snuggle your cutie, you send the money. The website looks legitimate and with all those photos, you never consider that this pup-for-sale is part of an intricately woven tale of fiction.    

Puppy Love image warns: Don't get scammed by Puppy Love. Find out more about online pet listing scams on the CAP blog: blog.uvm.edu/cap

What are you to do then? News sources have reported more people are purchasing furry friends during the pandemic. While we’re tethered to our homes, online buying seems to make the most sense.  What we’ve seen at the Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) through scam reports, however, is that when consumers purchase from online puppy sellers sight unseen, even from supposed Vermont businesses, folks are sending money and not getting a pet as promised.   

The simplest way to avoid online puppy scams is to commit to “pet the pet” before turning over any money. If you don’t have the lovable furry friend in hand: 

  • Don’t wire transfer money 
  • Don’t give the seller gift card information  
  • Don’t send a peer-to-peer payment (Venmo, PayPal Friends/Family, Zelle) 
  • Don’t mail cash, money orders, or/checks 
  • Don’t give out automatic debit information of your bank account or read off a check number 
  • Don’t provide a credit or debit card number 
  • Don’t give the seller remote access to your computer 
  • Don’t secure the pet purchase by providing copies of your license or Social Security card. 

I wish I had a better solution for you. I wish there was a magical website that connected each person to their pet family member. I wish I knew of a place in Vermont, or New England for that matter, where a person could buy a purebred puppy for as little as $225, like I did—believe me, I consider myself lucky. I am sad to say that I don’t. Absent this magical website, the best thing you can do is connect with people in your network and ask where they got their dogs. If your friends are like my friends, you will likely be referred to the Humane Society (Addison County Humane SocietyCentral Vermont Humane SocietyHumane Society of Chittenden CountyFranklin County Humane SocietyRutland County Humane SocietySpringfield Humane SocietyWindham County Humane Society). 

Want to learn more about scams and scam prevention? 

For more information about common scams and scams on the rise, we encourage you to utilize the following resources:  

CAP Connection: Consumer Assistance Program Blog  

Common Scams in Vermont  

Federal Trade Commission Scam Alerts  

If you would like to help stop scams, consider being a CAP Cares Ally, by getting scam alerts and notices from our office and committing to sharing scam information with those in your community.  

Get alerts from our office:  

To receive scam alerts about scams on the rise in Vermont by phone call, text, or email, use the following link to sign up for Scam Alerts:  https://ago.vermont.gov/scam-alerts-signup-form/. Need assistance signing up? Call the Consumer Assistance Program at 800-649-2424. We can help you sign up and we can assist if you have questions, concerns, or need help determining if you have been a victim of a scam.  

Gift Card Scams on the Rise in Vermont

Vermont Scam Alert by the Vermont Attorney General

The Consumer Assistance Program has recorded a 220% increase in gift card scams with loss reports since December.

Gift card scams take many forms; however, all request a gift card as payment and for the numbers on the back of the card to be provided to the scammer.

Be in the know:

  •    Using gift cards as payment is like sending cash.

  •    Providing the numbers on the back of the card is like giving cash:  Scammers may ask you to take pictures of the  card or relay the numbers of the phone.

  •    Scammers may say you must pay with a gift card because your credit card or another form of payment won’t work.

  •    Scammers may claim that using the gift cards will provide you certain incentives or free money opportunities.

  •    Gift cards are only valid forms of payment when used with the card’s identified retailer.

  •    Retail businesses can’t refund gift card funds that have been spent.
Gift Card Scams video produced by the Federal Trade Commission

Watch out for this and other similar scams that ask you to act quickly by providing gift card information, cash or money order, or by sending a wire transfer or peer-to-peer payment.

If you are asked to pay with a gift card, contact CAP right away at 1-800-649-2424.

Contributing Writer: Crystal Baldwin

Stay safe online this Valentine’s Day!

Looking for love online? The Consumer Assistance Program is here to help you make sure that your personal information and money are secure!

Romance Scams

How it works: The scammer creates a fake profile on a dating site or app. They may also initiate contact through Instagram, Facebook, Words With Friends, or Google Hangouts. Then, the scammer strikes up a relationship with their victim, gains their trust, and maintains sustained contact.

Spotting the scam: The scammer spins a story and asks you to send them personal information or money. They may ask you to send gift cards, mail cash, or wire them money via Western Union or MoneyGram.

What to do: End all communications with the scammer. Block the individual and/or report them to the website or app company. Do not send money or reveal personal information such as: social security number, bank accounts, credit card numbers, photo of your driver’s license, etc. If you have sent money or given the scammer access to sensitive information, call the Consumer Assistance Program.

Source: Federal Trade Commission

For more information about Romance Scams, see our blog post from February 2018.

Sextortion Emails

How it works: You receive an email from an unknown source. The message claims that they know your passwords and have planted malware on your computer. They claim that the malware has captured evidence of all your computer activity – including sensitive photos or visits to adult websites.  They threaten to share this evidence with all of your email or social media contacts. The scammer demands hush money in the form of gift cards, Bitcoin, or wire transfers.

Spotting the scam: The message might look generic and have numerous typos. They demand that you respond quickly, maybe within 24 hours. The passwords they claim to have appear to be old or may be log-in information you use for a website.

What to do: Do not reply to the message. Do not send money or personal information. Change your passwords to ensure your online security, especially if a website you use has recently experienced a data breach. Do not click on any links or attachments on the email. Make sure that your antivirus software is up to date.

Adult Website Pop-Ups

How it works: You are visiting an adult website when a pop-up message appears. The pop-up might be flashing or include sound. The pop-up may claim to be “Windows Support” or state that “Your computer may have a virus!” It is designed to pressure the user into a sense of panic. The message might prompt you to call someone for technical assistance.

Spotting the scam: Real computer tech support specialists will never ask you to call them in this manner. The pop-up may demand immediate action, payment, or prompt you to download something.

What to do: Turn off your computer and disconnect from the internet. Make sure that your antivirus software is up to date and functioning. If necessary, you may decide to seek out assistance from a trusted tech support professional.

Remember: some scammers are betting that topics of romance and sex can be sensitive or even embarrassing. Please don’t let these feelings keep you from calling CAP to get help! The reality is that we regularly hear from consumers who have been affected by these scams. Pick up the phone and give us a call if you feel you may have been scammed: 1-800-649-2424.

Census 2020: Know the facts!

What is the Census?

According to the United States Census Bureau, the Census counts every resident in the United States. Mandated by the Constitution, the Census takes place every 10 years. The data collected by the Census determine the number of seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives and is used to distribute billions in federal funds to local communities (U.S. Census Bureau).

“The Census asks questions of people in homes and group living situations, including how many people live or stay in each home, and the sex, age and race of each person. The goal is to count everyone once, only once, and in the right place.” U.S. Census Bureau

Why should I complete the Census?

Federal funds, grants and state support are based on population totals collected by the census. The federal money is spent on schools, infrastructure, hospitals, and many other programs. Businesses, developers, and local governments also use census data (U.S. Census Bureau).

Know the facts.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, the Census Bureau will start mailing out (and, in some areas, hand delivering) invitations to participate in the 2020 Census in mid-March. You should receive your invitation by April 1. You can respond to the Census: online, by phone, or by mail (FTC).

The Census asks: how many people are in the home at the time you complete the form; their sex, age, race, ethnicity; their relationships to one another; phone number; and whether you own or rent the home (FTC).

You can see all the questions asked on the 2020 Census on the Census Bureau’s website.

Look out for scams!

Scammers may pose as census workers to steal your personal information, which can be used to commit identity theft.

If you are visited by a census worker in-person, they must show a photo-ID. If you would like, the census worker may also provide you with their supervisor’s official contact information and the phone number to a regional office (FTC).

The Census will never ask for: your Social Security number, bank account or credit card numbers, passwords, money or donations, or anything on behalf of a political party. Note: the 2020 Census will not ask citizenship status (FTC).

The Census Bureau may call you to follow up, or they might call if a census worker visited your home while you were away. To verify the call, use the Census Bureau website (FTC).

Still have questions about the Census?

Visit the Census Bureau’s Frequently Asked Questions page, or call: (301) 763-INFO (4636) or (800) 923-8282.

As always, you can also call the Vermont Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program: (800) 649-2424.

Stay connected!

To receive official email updates from the U.S. Census Bureau, visit their website.