Elliott Greenblott: Fraud Watch: Imposters use creative schemes to take your money

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Tech support scams, IRS scams, grandparent scams, utility company scams, overpayment scams, rental scams, lottery scams, romance scams, mystery shopper scams; these and more are identified as imposter scams. In the most recent report by the Consumer Assistance Program operated by the Vermont Attorney General's office, nearly 83 percent of the scams reported in the first half of 2019 fall into this general category. Although I lack comparative data from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, or New York, it is fair to say that the statistics are likely somewhat similar. Given the extent of this crime, we should begin with a general definition. An imposter scam involves a criminal posing as another person, who you may trust, in order to obtain financial gain. Imposter scams target individuals from every age group, ethnicity, race and religion. These scammers do not discriminate and are adept at using technology to achieve their goal of separating you from your money. Many imposter scams have been described in this column including the grandparent, tech support, IRS, lottery, and romance scams. Here are two of the more complicated imposter scams.

The arrest warrant scam usually involves a phone call from someone pretending to be a local law enforcement officer. The caller often identifies a person at the residence and states that an arrest warrant has been issued for any one of a number of reasons such as failure to pay a traffic violation ticket or failure to appear for jury duty. Caller ID may even display the phone number for the law enforcement agency. The scammer will offer an opportunity to avoid arrest by paying the fine with gift cards or a money order. If this sounds familiar it is because of the similarity to the IRS, Tech Support and Grandparent Scams.

Law enforcement agencies do not call to notify of an impending arrest. Law enforcement and government agencies do not accept payments with gift cards or money orders. These are scams and should be reported to your Attorney General or local law enforcement with as much detail as possible including any names or even spoofed telephone numbers.

An imposter scam gaining in popularity is the on-line pet or animal scam. The victim conducts a search (Google) for a particular breed of dog or other desirable pet. An elaborate, fraudulent website lures the victim to what appears to be a "too good to be true" price for the pet and after agreeing to the purchase receives an on-line bill of sale. Payment is made to a third party and the victim is sent a tracking number. Next, the "shipping company" requests a refundable insurance payment that is often double the cost of the pet. Once this is made, there are requests for payment of additional fees to assure delivery. Beyond the use of "official" documents, the victim receives photographs of the pet and descriptions of favorite foods, treats, and toys, Often grooming instructions are sent as well as medical records. In the end the buyer is out the money and never receives the pet.

Protection from victimization is relatively easy. Verify the business selling the animal. Stay clear of purchases on eBay, social media or other unmanaged on-line sites as there is less oversight and a higher likelihood of being scammed or ending up with a sick pet. Obtain a "bricks and mortar" address for the business; a post office box should raise suspicions. Contact the local or state government to see if licensing or permits are required and whether or not the business is registered. Investigate to see if the Secretary of State in the state identified for the business or the Better Business Bureau has received any complaints and steer away from the purchase if things do not appear to add up. There are many legitimate businesses and animal shelters seeking good homes for pets. Ensuring that there are no negative surprises is easy and supports the legitimate and healthy supply of pets.

Questions, comments, concerns? Want to know about other imposter scams? Contact me at egreenblott@aarp.org.

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