Bruce Edwards/staff photo
Janet Murnane of the state’s Consumer Assistance Program addresses an AARP forum on fraud prevention at the Holiday Inn in Rutland last week.
Muriel Sedergren said she’d receive three or four calls a week but knew enough never to bite on the caller’s news that she had won a big lottery prize.
“My first question is ‘what’s this going to cost me?’” Sedergren said.
She said the next sound was the click of the caller hanging up.
Unlike Sedergren, however, many Vermonters, especially seniors, fall prey to lottery and other scams, and wind up losing hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
The attorney general’s office and its Consumer Assistance Program, along with the University of Vermont, logged more than 1,700 scam complaints last year.
It’s the reason why AARP is holding forums around the state to educate Vermonters on how to prevent being a scam victim.
The state’s list of scams closely tracks the Federal Trade Commission’s nationwide list, which has exploded in recent years.
“What we’ve learned is that there are so many more ways scammers reach us now,” Janet Murnane, who heads the Consumer Assistance Program, told a fraud prevention forum in Rutland last week.
“It’s not just mail and telephone calls any more,” she said. “Now we’re getting emails and people are getting texts and all kinds of other ways people are trying to contact you.”
Those scams run the gamut from phishing and lottery scams to bogus computer tech support and imposter scams. In all, the state compiled a list of the 10 top scams for 2012.
With 563 complaints, phishing topped the list. The scam attempts to steal sensitive personal information — bank account and Social Security numbers — with the scammer often posing as a bank or credit card company.
“My word of caution here is: Ignore unsolicited emails or texts or phone calls,” Murnane advised the audience.
She told forum attendees that a bank will never make unsolicited requests for personal information.
A scam that has increasingly caught the attention of law enforcement and consumer advocates is the lottery or sweepstakes con.
Murnane said many of those phone calls originate from Jamaica, which has an 876 area code. Whoever answers the phone is told they’ve won a large prize and only need to pay an up-front fee to collect their prize.
Once a payment is made, usually by wire, the victim will receive another call asking for an additional fee. If the victim refuses, Murnane said the calls can become threatening.
By the time someone realizes they’ve been scammed, she said, there is little or no chance of recovering the funds. She urged anyone who sees the 876 area code on their caller ID not to answer. She also warned that con artists can mask their true location by buying a number with any area code, including Vermont’s.
She said FairPoint Communications, the state’s dominant phone company, has gone so far as to work with Jamaican authorities in attempt to shut down the boiler-room operations.
One of the worst scams that preys on seniors is the imposter scam. The emailer or caller poses as a family member in trouble, urgently seeking cash. Sometimes the caller poses as a grandchild that has gotten into an accident or is stranded in another country.
The con artist urges the victim not to tell other family members. Murnane said that’s a dead giveaway it’s a scam.
She said scammers are often armed with personal information that makes the story convincing. They use the Internet to cull personal information, including Facebook.
“Scammers use the Internet to their advantage and we have to learn to use it to ours,” she said. “We have to learn to use the Internet to educate ourselves and to get information that will help us.”
In the bogus computer tech scam, the victim receives an unsolicited email or phone call warning that their computer has been infected with a virus. The offer is made to remove the virus or malware for a fee.
Murnane said the real purpose is to gain access to your computer to steal personal information. She advised never to click links in unsolicited emails or give someone remote access to your computer. The exception is when you’ve initiated contact with a reputable computer technician.
During the two-hour forum, Murnane fielded a number of questions and comments from the 65 people at the Holiday Inn.
One woman said her experience had gotten so bad she’s afraid of using the Internet, even of sending emails.
A man who owns his own business said he became suspicious when he was solicited for a listing in a California phone book.
“If I have my business in Vermont, why would I want to have my number in California?” he said.
Another person said he was contacted by a company claiming to be Publisher’s Clearing House.
Murnane said scammers often use official-looking emails with company logos to appear authentic.
Greg Marchildon, AARP Vermont’s state director, cited several reasons why seniors are targeted by con artists.
Marchildon said as people age they tend to focus on the positive aspects of life and are more trusting. He also said aging can affect decision-making ability.
“Obviously, consumer fraud is a huge and growing problem in Vermont and across the nation,” he said. “And scam artists and criminals in places like Jamaica are exploiting vulnerable older consumers and the best protection is education.”
The state’s top 10 scams and complaints in 2012:
Phishing, 563 complaints; lottery/sweepstakes, 220; computer tech support, 95; imposter, 89; debt collection, 89; phony invoices, 87; security system, 76; telemarketing, 73; online advertising, 66; loan scams, 56.
Murnane encouraged anyone who has been targeted by a scam to contact authorities. If a transfer of money has been made, she said contact the bank or wire transfer company immediately to stop the transaction.
Two remaining forums will be held in St. Albans, May 29, and St. Johnsbury, May 30.
The Consumer Assistance Program can be reached at 800-649-2424 or visit www.uvm.edu/consumer online.
To be placed on the federal Do Not Call Registry, visit www.donotcall.gov or call 888-382-1222.
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