It is not every day that government relief is offered for paying off student loans. In the past, to help warn about scams, I can recall specifically saying something to the effect of, “The government doesn’t give you money to pay for your student loans.” Now that the government is, in fact, giving certain qualified borrowers some student loan debt relief (studentaid.gov), my blanket statement no longer applies. Criminal fraudsters may take advantage of this rare opportunity by representing themselves as providing this student loan debt relief.
To make sure you are connected to the most accurate information when claiming your portion of the student loan forgiveness, connect with known legitimate sources.
The Federal Department of Education set up a “Federal Student Loan Borrower Updates” subscription so that you can receive notifications: https://www.ed.gov/subscriptions
Want to connect with someone locally? Vermont’s own VSAC has a wealth of information about student aid and stays in the know about available government programs.
Reach out to your loan servicer and update your contact information. Get your loan servicer information from your StudentAid.gov account.
Keys to detecting a student loan relief scam:
You never need to pay to claim your federal loan forgiveness. Hang up on calls asking you to pay!
The government does not solicit your participation in student loan relief programs, so you should not receive calls about it or click on ads offering student debt relief.
Hang up on callers asking for your Federal Student Aid/FSA ID. The Department of Education and your federal student loan servicer will not contact you to ask for this information. Keep your information safe from identity thieves, who may try to claim your student loan relief for themselves!
Companies offering debt relief in Vermont are required to be a licensed debt adjuster with the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation (DFR) Division of Banking. If you are interested in consolidating student loans, make sure the business meets the licensing requirements of our state and verify this with DFR.
Have you been contacted by student loan debt relief scam? Help others by reporting it!
Our nation’s consumer protection agencies, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) are working together to hold scammers accountable. “Over the course of the last 18 months, the FTC has reached nearly $30 million in settlements that included refunds for tens of thousands of student borrowers who were illegally charged up front fees and falsely promised reduced or eliminated student loan payments” (whitehouse.gov). Since 2011, the CFPB has required “refunds of nearly $8.7 million to consumers and banning several individuals from the debt-relief payment processing industry…” (whitehouse.gov)
Report scams directly to the Federal Trade Commission: reportfraud.ftc.gov
Report scam calls to help the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) identify scam callers. Send your Student Loan Scam report to StudentLoanScams@fcc.gov and include the date of the call, time of the call, the recipient’s phone number, the number on the caller ID.
The Consumer Assistance Program is your state resource to help identify and report scams. File with CAP through our online scam form or call us at 1-800-649-2424.
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.
Vermonters filed 5,021 scam reports with the Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) in 2020. The Social Security number phishing scam, which typically involves calls claiming that your Social Security number has been compromised, suspended, or linked to criminal activity, remained the most commonly scam for the second year in a row with 1,160 reports filed. Claiming the number two spot on the list of top ten scams in 2020 were “free money” scams. Six-hundred-eighty-three Vermonters reported receiving “free money” scam calls where they were told that they had won a prize or money and needed to pay fees or taxes upfront to collect. With scam attempts remaining high, Attorney General T.J. Donovan urges Vermonters to Take it Slow: scammers will pressure you to act fast, demanding personal information and payment, while threatening extreme consequences if you do not comply. Don’t let them pressure you!
“If you get a suspicious call, remember to slow down, hang up the phone, and take notes on the interaction,” warned Attorney General Donovan. “If you still need help identifying if something is a scam, call us at CAP at 800-649-2424.”
Unfortunately, many scam encounters result in monetary loss in Vermont. In 2020, 249 Vermonters lost approximately $1.5 million, in total, to scammers. The most common scams associated with monetary loss were imposter scams (scammers posing as friends, family members, or romantic interests) and online classified listing scams (scams perpetrated on sites such as Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace). Scammers ask their victims to send money using a variety of methods, including gift card transactions, peer-to-peer payments apps like Venmo or CashApp, wire transfers, and cash or checks in the mail.
Vermonters can report a scam or sign up for the Scam Alert system by going to ago.vermont.gov/cap or by calling the Consumer Assistance Program at 1-800-649-2424.
The scam: You receive a phone call (usually a robocall) stating that there has been criminal or fraudulent activity involving your Social Security number. The scammer may also claim to be a government agency or law enforcement, threatening arrest or serious consequences. The scam often begins as a robocall.
How to spot the scam: If Social Security (or any official agency) wanted to contact you, they would not call to ask for your personal information, especially your Social Security number, over the phone. These agencies mail communications and would never threaten you for information or payment over the phone.
What to do: Be wary when responding to unsolicited contacts and never provide personal information to unknown contactors, especially over the phone.
The scam: You receive a phone call, email, or mailing that claims you have won money or a prize—but there’s a catch: you have to pay money up front for taxes or fees. Sometimes the outreach includes a realistic-looking fake check. The check bounces and no “winnings” are ever dispersed. Often, they claim to be Publishers Clearing House. Scammers may also claim to offer government grants or stimulus money, getting touch via social media.
How to spot the scam: If you actually win a major prize from Publishers Clearing House, they will contact you in person. For smaller prizes (less than $10,000), winners are notified by overnight delivery services (FedEx, UPS), certified mail, or email in the case on online giveaways. They never make phone calls. An unsolicited check in the mail from an unknown sender is usually a scam.
What to do: If it sounds too good be true, then it’s not true. Never pay an upfront fee to receive winnings or a grant. If you win something, they will pay you – not the other way around. No actual contest or sweepstakes would you make you pay first to receive money.
Amazon and package deliveries phishing
The scam: An automated phone call or email claiming that your credit card has been charged by Amazon or that you have an outstanding balance on your account. The scammer instructs people to call them to get a refund or resolve the charge, at which point they request your card number and attempt to gain remote access to your computer. You might also receive a text message or email claiming that you have a package, but they need to verify your information.
How to spot the scam: Amazon will not call you unless you request that they do so. If you have legitimate concerns about your Amazon account, or other accounts, contact the company directly through a trusted contact, such as through the customer portal within your account.
What to do: Hang up the phone and do not call back. Furthermore, you should not allow remote access to your computer to unknown parties. If you are concerned about charges made to your credit card, contact your credit card company directly. If you receive a text regarding a package delivery, don’t click any links or reply.
The scam: A phone call or pop-up message on your computer claiming to be from Microsoft, Apple, or another well-known tech company. They will say there is a virus or other problem with your computer and try to persuade you to give them remote access to resolve the issue. They may also ask for immediate payment for their services.
How to spot the scam: Legitimate customer service information usually won’t display as a pop-up. Companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Google do not call you to notify you of malware on your computer.
What to do: Never provide remote access to your computer to a stranger or click links from an unknown sender in an e-mail or pop-up message. If you get a call from “tech support,” hang up. Also, be careful when searching for tech support numbers online. Some users have been scammed by calling illegitimate numbers for legitimate companies.
The scam: There is a wide variety of phony relationship scams. Sometimes, the scammer pretends to be someone you know, like a love interest, friend, relative, or even a religious leader. They typically reach out to you online or on the phone, claiming to need money.
How to spot the scam: They ask you to send money immediately, often in the form of wire transfers or gift cards. If you met the person online, but they refuse to video-chat or talk on the phone.
What to do: If they claim to be someone you know, call the person using a verified phone number. If you receive a suspicious email, be sure to double-check the email address. If you’re feeling suspicious, get the real story and talk to someone you trust. Cut off communication with the scammer. If you receive an email from a friend or coworker asking for money, do not send money. Be sure to call that person directly—it’s most likely a scam.
The scam: Scammers pose as debt collectors or law enforcement and say legal action will be taken against you if you don’t pay them what you owe. Some may claim to be familiar businesses or the government, such as utility companies or the IRS.
How to spot the scam: If you did owe a debt, collectors are not allowed to threaten you with arrest over the phone. You can request verification of the debt, which has to be sent to you in writing. If you ask them to stop calling you, they are generally required to stop.
What to do: Hang up the phone, and if they call again, let the call go to voicemail. If you think you do actually owe money to a debt collector or other agency, make sure you call using a trusted number.
The scam: Sometimes the scammer responds to a seller’s post, overpays with a check, and asks for the remainder to be wired back. Sometimes the post is for a fictitious rental property and the scammer is looking for the deposit and first month’s rent to be sent immediately. Scams even happen when you are looking for that perfect puppy or pet to expand your family, but the transport of the animal is supposedly held up at the airport or elsewhere.
How to spot the scam: If you feel suspicious, stop the sale or purchase. The scammer may ask you to wire them money, send a bank transfer, or pay using gift cards. They may not want to talk on the phone or meet in person. Remember, you should not provide a rental deposit before signing the lease or contract in-person.
What to do: Complete your transactions in cash and preferably in-person. If they refuse to meet in-person or talk on the phone, ignore them and end communication.
The scam: You receive an email that threatens exposure of compromising home video and pictures, unless you pay, usually in Bitcoin. The email claims you have been hacked and may reference a current or former password you may have used. The sender claims that they have access to your computer and webcam and threatens to release embarrassing photos and video unless you send them money.
How to spot the scam: The scammer is using scare tactics to make you act fast. Don’t take the bait! The email message will often include threats and hurtful language.
What to do: Do not reply to the email or click on any links or attachments included on the message. Do not send money. If you find that your current password is listed in the email, change your passwords from another computer and run virus scans. Delete the email or add it to your spam/junk folder.
The scam: Scammers pose as grandchildren and claim to be in serious trouble, such as in prison or at the hospital. They urgently request money in the form of wired funds or prepaid gift cards. They may also claim that their voice sounds unfamiliar due to injury. After the initial call, they may claim you will be hearing from an attorney or officer.
How to spot the scam: Call your grandchild or family members on known phone numbers to ensure your grandchild is safe.
What to do: Never wire or otherwise send funds unless you can verify the emergency. Take it slow and contact someone you trust.
Bank/financial institution phishing
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 suspicion 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 on 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.
This is a monthly series in which the Attorney General will feature a Vermonter doing exemplary work in their community. Have someone you think should be featured? Email AGO.CAP@vermont.gov.
Sharon Garafano Russell is the Executive Director of the Rutland City Rescue Mission, better known at the Open Door Mission. The Open Door Mission houses 51 people and this year they provided 36,000 meals in the Soup Kitchen which serves residents of the Mission and people on the street. They have a staff of 11 that work around the clock providing meals, clean bedding and a clean and safe home for both residents and those just staying a few nights. The Mission serves three meals a day and runs on the proceeds of their thrift store, an annual golf tournament and individual donations. Under Sharon’s leadership, this structure has become a model for veteran shelters across the country.
Sharon has dedicated her life to helping the disenfranchised, supporting all people independent of their appearance, past or place in life. She has received countless awards over the years, most recently “The Unsung Hero Award” from her alma mater Mount St. Joseph Academy (MSJ Class of ’65).
After growing up in Rutland, Sharon completed her bachelors in early education from the University of Maryland. She then taught special education and served as the head of the Adult Education Program at the Brandon Training School for eleven years. This was followed by the state exam for social work, which led her to the Open Door Mission.
Sharon lives in Rutland with her two children, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
What inspires your work with the Open Door Mission?
What inspires me most is I went to MSJ and was always taught by nuns who said we should pay our good luck forward, and so too again when I attended The College of St Joseph. Second, and probably the most important, is that Jody Fish, a classmate at MSJ, went to Vietnam and never returned. That is why I contract with the VA to work with veterans.
What impact has the Open Door Mission had on your community?
The impact on our community is that the disenfranchised and the homeless veteran has a warm bed and 3 hot meals daily in our soup kitchen, where we serve 120 meals daily. We also serve folks from the street. There is nothing better then to see a small child go home with a full tummy and a smile–it makes my day–or when a veteran who has been on the streets in larger cities tells us how special our food is.
What have you learned from your work at the Open Door Mission?
Every day I learn something new. A few of those lessons are: but for how my life has been I could be on the streets; I have learned that labels are for cans, not for people; and we don’t always know what is causing people to have addictions or mental illness. I have learned if each one of us tries, we can make a difference in the world.
What advice do you have for others looking to impact their community?
My advice for others is to make a impact on the community, stop and look around. You will see the need. Don’t judge people, for you will find that most are good people who have chosen that road that is too often traveled. I suggest instead, as Robert Frost wrote, to take the one “less traveled” in order to make a difference.