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Is it a scam? It’s the most frequently asked question we address. There is no simple answer to this somewhat simple question. The response is complex, requiring a response to three questions. How did “they” make contact: phone, email, online/social media, text message, in-person, mail? Who are “they:” law enforcement, a government agency, tech support, a business such as Amazon, a utility company, a relative, romantic interest; and what did “they” request?

•Money — cash, gift cards, Zelle/Venmo payment, wire transfer, credit cards, crypto?

•Personal information: account information, Social Security or Medicare number, birth date?

•Payment involving a problem (unpaid bill or taxes) or family emergency?

•Expense fees to obtain a prize.

•Money due to an emergency.

Let’s put the pieces together for each means of contact. Phone call: only answer the phone when you definitely know the caller. Let the call go to voice mail. Serious callers leave messages; scammers generally don’t.

Email

Criminals are adept at “spoofing” (impersonating someone else). Hover the cursor of your device over the sender’s name to see the real address. Rarely is a company email address @gmail.

Social Media

Beware of “pop-up” messages from “friends” and unrealistically priced deals that appear. Scammers, once again, are great impersonators. Verify identities before parting with money or information.

Text messages

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Text messages are virtually free to send. Responding to a random text message or clicking on a link when you can’t verify the sender’s identity puts you at risk. Any response notifies the sender that the number contacted belongs to someone and sets you up for more scam attacks.

Door to door

While winter is not a typical time for in-person contacts, one thing we have come to expect is the unexpected. Don’t open your door to uninvited strangers bearing gifts or offers.

USPS Mail

Generally, postal scams via consumer mailings are not typical for one basic reason: they cost the criminal money. Still, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service notes hundreds of fraudulent cases involving postal scams (just visit the website https://www.uspis.gov/tips-prevention/mail-fraud).

Let’s look at the “who” of the three questions (how? what? who?). Was it law enforcement? Law enforcement won’t notify you of an impending arrest; neither will there be a demand for immediate payment. Was it a government agency? The first contact is typically by mail. A call, text, or email demanding payment or action — it’s a scam!

Microsoft, Apple, Windows, and Google do not notify consumers individually of personal problems. Tech companies don’t call or email you about your computer. If enough people call a tech company about the same problem, the company will (sometimes) issue a statement and provide a remedy.

What about Amazon calling? No, they aren’t — it is a scam. A message from your bank or credit card company? Unless you can positively verify identity, hang up or don’t respond. Instead, use a trusted number, such as one on a statement, and call to see if an issue needs your attention.

Should I help a relative or friend experiencing an emergency? The scam has a high level of success because it plays on personal emotion. Dodge this ploy. Hang up, saying, “let me call you back.” Then, call the person or someone who would have personal knowledge of any emergency.

Special note: Gift cards are not legal tender! Government agencies, law enforcement and businesses do not accept Apple Gift Cards (unless it is Apple). Did you win the lottery? Probably not, and any time you do win, you won’t be notified by email or a phone call. In most cases, you need to make contact yourself or through a representative. It is illegal for lotteries to charge fees for winning.

Finally, be alert to romance scams. These play on emotions and develop over a period of weeks or months. Criminals create synthetic identities using personal histories, invented details, and stock photos. Verify the identity of the person in the relationship by running background and identity checks online.

If the person is unable to meet face-to-face because of employment or military service, you are most likely dealing with a criminal.

Elliott Greenblott a retired educator and coordinator of the AARP Vermont Fraud Watch Network, produces the CATV program, Mr. Scammer, distributed by GNAT-TV in Sunderland.