Fraud Watch: The top scams of 2017 and how to spot them

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It's that time of the year again for special awards and recognition. In the world of entertainment, we have the Golden Globes, Grammys, Emmys, Obies and Oscars. In the world of fraud, we have the annual "Scammies" - the winners of most frequently reported frauds and attempted fraud.

My list is based on the Vermont Attorney General's report of over 3,000 contacts a year, more than an average of 10 calls a day. It does not differentiate between general contacts and victim and does not include other state, federal, and local government reports, nor information collected by organizations such as AARP or the Better Business Bureau.

Here are the top 5 scams in 2017:

The "Yes" Scam: The fifth-most reported scam is often attempted with an automated or robo-call asking "can you hear me?" (Targeted live calls may even state your name asking if it is you.) The caller attempts to gain a voice approval to use making purchases or accessing accounts. Since these calls are generally untraceable, the best thing to do is simply hang up.

The Grandparent Scam: With more than 200 reports filed, this has proven to be the most successful scam perpetrated in Vermont. A claim is made that a grandchild or other relative is in serious criminal or medical trouble and urgently needs funds by money wire or prepaid gift cards. Frequently the call includes the raspy voice of the "victim" pleading for money and saying "please don't tell my parents. They will be mad at me."

If you receive the call, do not comply with the request for money unless you have absolute independent verification of the emergency. Contact other family members to verify the situation. Hang up.

Phishing Scams: Whether by letter, phone call, or email, this third most frequent scam attempts to access critical personal information including bank account numbers, credit card numbers, Medicare/Social Security numbers, passwords, and account IDs.

The scammer will impersonate a family member, business executive, or government official to project a personal connection or degree of authority. Con artists are adept at "spoofing" telephone numbers, email addresses, and social media accounts. They are extremely skillful at creating duplicate fraudulent web addresses/sites that are extremely difficult to differentiate from official ones. Being tricked is easy, so caution is urged whenever asked for personal or financial information. Government agencies will not send emails or make phone calls to verify information. Any requests should be checked by contacting the business or government office using a reliable telephone number, not one provided by the person contacting you.

The Computer Tech Support Scam is our second-most reported fraud plaguing the public at an increasingly frequent rate. Whether by phone, email, or pop-up window, the claim is the same: there is something dreadfully wrong with your computer. The caller will often claim to be an employee of Microsoft or Windows (I get these calls and my computers are Apples) alerting you to viruses or malware and asking you to give remote access to your computer to "fix" the problem. (They may even threaten to remotely freeze or damage your computer.)

The solution here is simple. If it is a phone call, hang up; if it is a message on your computer, shut down the computer and restart. These efforts originating outside the United States generally cannot be traced and while the threat of reprisal is made, it is highly unlikely that action can be taken. Microsoft, Apple, Intel, Google and Amazon do not monitor the health of your computer system and all will only address issues that are widespread to their users. The best defense against any computer-based attacks comes with multiple backups and strong commercial software protection.

The most frequently reported scam (nearly 1500 reports) has held this distinction for several years: The IRS Scam, a claim by an official that you owe back taxes and will be arrested unless immediate payment is made by money order or gift card.

The IRS will never call you and threaten legal action. If you think you may owe taxes, hang up and call the IRS at 800-829-1040 for assistance.

For questions or information, email egreenblott@aarp.org.

Elliott Greenblott is a retired educator who serves as the Vermont AARP Fraud Watch Network coordinator.      

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