SLAM the SCAM: Hang up on government imposters!

By Margaret Tabb and Ana Amo

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.

Hang up on government imposters! SLAM the SCAM! blog.uvm.edu/cap

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 reported a[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.

Medicare/Medicaid Imposter

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.

IRS Impersonator

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.

Legal Authority (Police/Sheriff/Litigant/Immigration)

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.

For more information about government imposter scams, please check out the FTC’s article on How to Avoid a Government Impersonator Scam.

Reporting Scams to CAP

To report scams, please visit our scam reporting form: https://ago.vermont.gov/cap/stopping-scams/.  If you have difficulty accessing the form, call our office at 800-649-2424 to report the scam over the phone.


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

Wretched Robocalls 

By Crystal Baldwin  

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).

Ten years ago, the influx of scam calls through automation began. In two days, the Consumer Assistance Program (CAP), which traditionally logged around twenty scam reports per month, received hundreds of scam reports over two days. By the end of 2012, CAP averaged 145 scam reports per month. Of the first robocalls Vermonters reported were the card services scam, which claimed interest rates could be lowered on their bank credit cards. Next came claims of free gift cards from a specific retailer, who was offering nothing of the sort. What soon followed was a rush of new scams; claims that free life alert devices were available, the infamous IRS scam (responsible for 4,261 reports in 2016), which morphed into the SSN phishing scam, and countless others. Reports of scams have not dropped below the 5,000 mark since before 2015 in large part due to robocalls. After nearly a decade, it’s clear these calls are not going away on their own.   

While scam nature varies, the one thing these scams have in common is the criminal use of expanded phone technology. In short, scammers have learned how to manipulate our phone systems to make millions of unscrupulous calls per minute. As long as they continue to make money, they will continue to call with enticing offers and troubling spiels.  

How a Robocall Gets to You – Consumer Assistance Program – Learn more

Telltale signs of robocall scams: 

  • A computer/automated/robot voice 
  • Pressure to act immediately 
  • A request for something: your information/your money 

To the demise of the robocall scam industry, there are steps you can take as a consumer advocate to avoid these calls. By being aware and not engaging with these calls and making these scams less successful, you are doing your part to stop robocall scams. Learn more about stopping scams by opening the Blocking Unwanted Calls tab on CAP’s website. You can also listen to a previously recorded Vermont Edition about stopping and blocking robocalls.

Here’s what you can do when you receive an unknown call: 

  • Pause:  Take time to reflect – if a call is unexpected, disengage. 
  • Take steps to verify by making note of the contact and doing research, including checking a trusted source. 
  • Discuss scams with friends and loved ones regularly. Storytelling induces learning. The simple act of communicating with others about scams can help prevent others from becoming victims.  
  • Keep on reporting them. Our office has been part of a bipartisan taskforce of attorneys general and federal law enforcement to relieve consumers of unwanted calls. Your robocall reports are used to aid this taskforce in tracking down criminal syndicates. 

With the help of federal authorities and a large U.S. voice provider, our office has been able to track down US intermediaries and hold them accountable for sending scam calls to your phone. 

You can help stop robocalls by reporting them to the Consumer Assistance Program: CAP’s online scam reporting form.  

Introducing: Business Imposter Email Scam Prevention Videos

By Crystal Baldwin 

Businesses get scammed by imposters, too. This notion was news to me when my office received our first business imposter email scam report about five years ago. A small law firm had transferred $30,000 as directed to do so in an email. In yet another scam involving a real estate law office, it was more than $100,000 of the seller’s money that had been unwittingly transferred to a scam account. 

:30 – Avoiding the Business Imposter Email Scam. Hear the whole story at ago.vermont.gov/cap/business-imposter

We’ve heard from a retailer, who was in the process of completing their annual supply order: a container of supplies for the holiday season, with their supplier in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong supplier’s email was hacked, and the Vermont small business responded to a valid email address of the supplier to provide updated account information—to a scammer. Charities and small membership organizations have been subjects of this scam as well. 

Recently, we heard from a nurse, who, with kind intentions to appreciate fellow frontline workers purchased gift cards as suggested by their supervisor in an email, was responding to a business imposter email scam. 

In each of these scams, the personnel involved were simply following standard operating procedure: you get an email from a figure of authority to complete a financial transaction, and you do. It is easy to assume that this kind of scam won’t happen to you or your business, but with ever-evolving technology and growing capability of scammers to deceive, it is becoming more important for businesses to be on the lookout for and arm against scams.  

:60 – Avoiding the Business Imposter Email Scam video. Hear the whole story at ago.vermont.gov/cap/business-imposter

Whether an email system is hacked and the scammer takes control to send out the transfer request, or a scammer creates a fake account email with all the boss’ credentials, these emails appear as though they are coming from a legitimate source within the business.  

  • Often, when using mobile email services, only the email sender’s name is plainly visible, rather than the entire email address. So, if the email address is “yourboss@yahoo.com,” you don’t see the Yahoo account extension unless you click on the email.   
  • Another tactic scammers use is copying the signature block of the person of authority. Scammers can easily copy signature blocks used in external out-of-office autoreply messages by receiving a reply message that includes the signature block. All the scammer had to do was send an email to get the autoreply with the signature block.  

There are countless ways in which scammers can infiltrate business systems. Businesses can never be too cautious in protecting themselves and their customers from scams. In an effort to help businesses prevent scams from derailing operations, we produced the Avoiding the Business Imposter Email Scam videos and toolkit, which includes scam warnings and actual steps that businesses can take to verify funds transfer requests.  

Avoiding the Business Imposter Email Scam video. Learn more at ago.vermont.gov/cap/business-imposter

Learn more at ago.vermont.gov/cap/business-imposter 

Get more information for businesses from the Consumer Assistance Program

Report Scams:  

If you or someone you know has encountered a scam in Vermont, report it. Use the Consumer Assistance Program’s online scam reporting form. 

Help us stop these scams by sharing this information with your colleagues and business personnel. 

Introducing: Family Imposter/Emergency Scam Prevention Videos

By Crystal Baldwin

Family Imposter: Know your relationships-take steps to verify

“I need help…”
“I’m in prison…” 
“I’m in the hospital. I need help…” 
“I had a bad car accident, and people are injured…” 

No matter what the scammers say when they initiate the family imposter/ emergency scam, it is sure to spike emotion. Scammers call, claiming to be one of your most cherished loved ones—your grandchild—and ignite fear that those you care about are in dire need. With emotions running high, how can you not engage with the call, stay on the line, and find out more? You are worried and feel helpless because all you have to validate this story is the phone in your hand and the fear of what if.   

What if you do nothing and your grandchild really is in trouble?

:30 – Avoiding the Family Imposter Scam video.Hear the whole story at ago.vermont.gov/cap/family-imposter

I considered these very questions when writing the script for the newly released Avoiding the Family Emergency Scam videos. I recalled the stories of actual Vermont families receiving such alarming calls in the middle of the night with nothing to go on but the urgency of the call, the deep love for their family member, and the desire to resolve the issue at hand. As our volunteer actress, Ruth Wallman, relays as the unsuspecting grandparent in the video, “What was I supposed to do? He needed my help!…I like to be there for my family. But, this just went too far.” 

The SLOW method. Share this PDF download with someone you care about.

In creating this video series, I hoped to help Vermont families find a way to still be there for their families when emergencies arise by arming them with useful verification strategies to decipher between a scam and an actual family crisis. Verification of the family imposter scam starts with the SLOW method, a scam response strategy I created specifically to pause and identify scams. It urges people to Slow Down, Log the Contact, make One Call to a primary contact to discuss the incident, and call an organization in your life Who Cares, such as the Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) at 1-800-649-2424.    

:60 – Avoiding the Family Emergency Scam video. Hear the whole story at ago.vermont.gov/cap/family-imposter

Engaging with others is a crucial verification step, because scammers often demand secrecy in family emergency scams and make would-be valid claims that they would be too embarrassed or ashamed, or afraid of ensuing punishment if other family members were made aware of the damning incident. 

Family support and open, frequent communication among families is essential to putting an end to the family imposter/emergency scam. If questions remain, family cannot be reached or communications are limited, contacting a third-party organization, like CAP is the next best step. CAP is familiar with scams and can help to identify them. By contacting CAP, you can also make a scam report, which helps our office identify and alert the public about scam trends.  

Help protect yourself and others by taking time to watch the video. Review the information on our website, and encourage those you care about to learn more about scams and prevention strategies to stop them.   

Avoiding the Family Emergency Scam video. Learn more at at ago.vermont.gov/cap/family-imposter

Learn more at ago.vermont.gov/cap/family-imposter 

Read more blogs about family imposter scams.  

Report Scams:   
If you or someone you know has encountered a scam in Vermont, report it. Use CAP’s online scam reporting form.    
  
Help us stop these scams by sharing this information with those you care about.