BRATTLEBORO—Vermonters filed 1,700 complaints of consumer fraud with the state Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) last year. Many of the scammers behind what was found to be fraud had targeted seniors, said Assistant Attorney General Janet Murnane, director of CAP.
Murnane spoke to seniors about ways to protect themselves against fraudsters at a forum hosted by CAP and AARP on March 28.
“They want your money,” she said.
CAP’s top 10 list for scams in 2012 ranged from “phishing” for personal information, to bogus computer technical assistance, to scammers masquerading as debt collectors.
These con artists are using all forms of technology — landline phones, cell phones, email, texts — to run their scams, said Murnane. Consumers who received fraudulent communications should contact CAP.
Murnane’s overall advice: Don’t reply to any unfamiliar or unsolicited emails, texts, or phone calls.
Even when a communication appears to come from a bank, credit card company, other business, or a traveling relative in distress, disconnect and contact the person or business directly, she said.
“Don’t engage on the phone. Don’t be polite,” she said, adding that if you are, the scammer may call back and try again.
It may feel rude to hang up on people, Murnane said, but it’s about protecting yourself.
Consumers should also contact authorities and, when appropriate, stop or report fraudulent transactions made on a credit card, for example.
“Phishing” scams topped the list of complaints last year. Vermonters filed 563 complaints with CAP of people trying to collect sensitive information that could lead to accessing a consumer’s bank account or stealing their identity.
Beware of phony text messages
According to CAP’s website, the most common phishing scam was phony text messages. The texts appeared to originate from a legitimate bank.
In a recent investigation, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) tracked down about eight companies that had sent 220 million emails and texts offering bogus “free” gift cards, said Murnane.
“It isn’t free and it’s never going to be free,” she said.
Next on the list, contest, sweepstakes or lottery scams.
These lottery scams exclaim “winnings!” in the millions. But, to claim such money, the scammers ask the mark to fork over money first to pay the international taxes, or a handling fee, or a check processing fee, or for anything else the scammers think they can milk from a person.
Never pay to receive winnings, said Murnane. Also, under federal law, it’s illegal for Americans to collect winnings from international lotteries.
Vermonters filed 220 reports of faux contests last year, most of which originated overseas, said Murnane.
A series of scam telephone calls originating from a Jamaican area code, 876, prompted FairPoint Communications to launch a campaign, “Beware of 876.”
According to FairPoint’s website, www.bewareof876.com, the ersatz lotto targeted elderly residents throughout northern New England.
Murnane said that sometimes the contests’ masterminds employ intermediaries to make calls. These people likely are unaware they’re helping scammers.
Coming in with 95 complaints to CAP, dummy computer technical support, viruses, and “ransomware” designed to gain access to individuals’ computers.
Murnane related the experience of a woman who received a phone call from someone claiming to work for computer giant Microsoft. The caller posed as a technical support specialist charged with walking owners through resolving a software issue.
The scammer coached the woman through the steps to “fix” the problem. In reality, he was manipulating her into giving him remote access to her computer, said Murnane. He charged her $19.95 for the “tech support” and then stole hundreds more.
In another con, a scammer developed a ransomware virus to lurk in a file-sharing network, said Murnane. The virus locked a teen’s computer and flashed a mock FBI message saying the user had violated the law. The message then instructed that to unlock the computer, the user had to pay a fine and provided a way to pay the money online.
According to Murnane, the FBI does not lock people’s computers and request they pay fines.
She recommended taking the computer to a professional who can safely unlock the machine and remove the virus.
In general, don’t allow people remote access to your computer, Murnane added.
The emotional hook
Con artists often target consumers on an emotional level, said Murnane. They pretend to be a loved one in the hospital overseas who desperately needs money. This ploy is often called a grandparent scam as elder grandparents are frequent targets. Or scammers pose as debt collectors threatening to harass a consumer at work — or worse, arrest them.
As emotionally difficult as these scams can feel, said Murnane, don’t pay any money. Instead contact the loved one or lender directly.
Once people pay money to a scammer, it’s gone, she said. “Prevention is the only thing that works,” she added.
Murnane said Vermonters lost about $84,296 through grandparent schemes in 2012.
Other popular scams in 2012 included bilking businesses through phony invoices, offers of installing “free” home security systems, online advertisement scams through a site such as eBay or Craigslist, robocall telemarketing scams, and a variety of loan scams.
AARP has also launched a campaign to help consumers protect themselves against health care scams. According to a flyer from AARP, law enforcement has spotted health care scams asking people to sign up for fraudulent government health insurance programs.
Murnane outlined steps to take if scammed: keep all records, file a police report, inform financial institutions like a consumer’s bank or credit card company, check their credit report at annualcreditreport.com, and file a complaint with CAP.
Vermont law allows consumers two free credit reports a year, added Murnane.
CAP is a joint endeavor between the AG’s office and the University of Vermont in Burlington.
According to Murnane, about 15 students participate in the program by working with consumers and helping to investigate complaints. CAP receives about 6,000 telephone calls annually and about 2,700 written complaints from consumers.