In recognition of National Consumer Protection Week and in response to ongoing Vermont consumer complaints, Attorney General William H Sorrell warns consumers to be wary of frauds and scams that use wire transfer services, debt consolidators, and threatening collection calls all intended to take money from Vermonters.Fraud”Through a variety of means – posing as family or friends in distress, classified ads, bogus lottery and sweepstakes prize notices, and phony job offers – scammers use creative ways to get consumers to send them money by wire ransfer. We all need to know, and to make sure our loved ones know, that wire transfers are a key tool for scammers to get your hard-earned money. Vermonters should consider suspicious and possibly fraudulent, any unanticipated requests for funds by wire transfer.”How can you tell if it’s fraud?Did you get a call or e-mail from a family member in distress?- In recent months, Vermont consumers have lost tens of thousands of dollars to this scam. The consumer received a call from someone who sounded just like a family member, calling in distress while supposedly travelling and in need of emergency funds. The consumer may be told the family member has been arrested or mugged and lost all their money. The consumer is asked not to report it to other family members. If you receive a call or e-mail from a family member or friend requesting money be sent by wire transfer-STOP and contact another family member or friend to verify whether that the person is actually travelling, or contact the Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program for assistance.Did you get a check or money order in the mail?- Vermont consumers have also lost substantial funds to scammers after receiving what appeared to be a valid check or money order with instructions to deposit it, and then return some of the funds by wire transfer. Whether the check is an “advance on winnings”, “payment” for “mystery shopper” services, an overpayment for an item you are selling, or any other similar circumstance, the check always comes back as fake. Many of these fake checks can take weeks to come back as fake or drawn on accounts with no funds, but in every instance, the bank will require the consumer to pay back the money.Have you responded to an internet ad for an apartment rental?- Recently, Vermonters have also lost money to scammers offering a Vermont apartment or vacation property for rent. The scammer requests the consumer to send the security deposit by wire transfer. Scammers copy real estate listings and pose as absentee landlords, then “approve” the consumer for the “lease” and request an application fee or security deposit by wire. By the time the consumer learns that the property is bogus or they sent the money to someone that does not own the property, the money is gone. Check with local housing authorities regarding the existence of the actual property and establish the owner.What can you do if you have been targeted?Cease all contact with the scammer- If you have been targeted by a scammer, do not continue contact with the scammer.Stop or report any wire transfer of funds- If you have sent funds by wire transfer, contact the wire transfer company immediately to report the fraud and halt the transaction. If you are able to report it before the money is picked up, you may be able to stop the transaction. Unfortunately, in most cases once the scammer has the transaction reference number, the funds are collected within minutes.Contact authorities- Contact your local police to report the fraud, as well as the Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program (CAP). CAP tracks wire transfer fraud reports and uses the information in its efforts to work with wire transfer companies to combat wire transfer fraud.Know how to spot a fraud- Wire transfer fraud is difficult to investigate, as the funds can often be picked up at any location and the scammers are often out of the country. Vermonters’ best defense against this predatory activity is to understand and avoid these scams altogether. Collection ThreatsSorrell is cautioning Vermonters to be wary of fake collection calls that threaten consumers with dire consequences for failing to pay on a supposed debt. “These calls violate Vermont law. Collection agents may not threaten arrest, garnishments of wages, loss of personal property or other consequences they cannot enforce without a court order,” says Sorrell. Many of the calls claim to be collecting on an unpaid “payday” or short-term loan. In some cases, consumers had received short term loans, but had paid them in full. Payday loans are unlawful in Vermont, as the interest rates far exceed the rates allowable under Vermont banking law.What you can do if you are targeted by shady collectors:Don’t engage with the caller: The hostile and threatening tactics employed by these callers is intended to scare you into paying. Politely request information in writing and end the call. DO NOT make payment arrangements or agree to terms over the telephone, as such agreements are difficult to prove or enforce.Do not provide or verify any personal information: Do not give or verify your social security number, bank account information or date of birth, even if it appears the caller may know the information. Do not acknowledge you may owe a debt. Request the information be sent to you ‘ the caller should have your address and then end the call.Request information on the debt and the collection agency: Under debt collection practices law, you have the right to know the full name and contact information for any collection agency that contacts you, as well as to request proof of the debt in writing.Respond in writing to any written notification of a debt: If a collection agency sends you a notice in writing that you have a debt, but does not provide the specifics of the debt, respond in writing and request all the information about the debt be sent to you, including a copy of their right to collect the debt. Do not verify any personal information. Send your response by certified or registered mail. Under debt collection practices law, the collection agency must furnish proof in writing that you owe the debt upon your request and provide their authority to collect on the debt, or cease collection of the debt.Tell the collection agency how they may contact you: You have the right to request that any collection agency contact you only in the manner that you choose (such as by mail or through your attorney), or not contact you at all (called a cease-contact request). Your request must be in writing and should be sent by certified or registered mail so you have proof of receipt.Report harassing, threatening or bogus collection calls: If you receive bogus, threatening or harassing calls, you may report the calls to authorities. Violations of fair debt collection practices laws can be reported to the Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program. You may find more information about your debt collection rights or file a complaint online (www.uvm.edu/consumer(link is external)) or contact CAP by phone toll free in Vermont at (800) 649-2424 or (802) 656-3183. Threats of physical harm should be immediately reported to your local law enforcement agency. Free OfferSorrell is also reminding Vermonters to be wary of free trial offers because often they contain hidden fees and other subscription obligations. Attached to promotions from online merchants or associated with health-related or other products advertised on television and in print media, these free trial offers usually include inflated shipping or handling charges and an automatic subscription and monthly charge if the consumer does not cancel. “Companies hide recurring fees behind free trial offers and make cancelling membership plans hard in the hopes that consumers will forget or give up. They then continue to charge consumers monthly for services and products they don’t need or want,” says Sorrell. When consumers finally cancel they may be charged cancellation or restocking fees. Many consumers may miss the small monthly charges on their credit card, checking account or telephone statements.Protect yourself from hidden fees and recurring charges:Avoid or be wary of free trial offers and other similar promotions- Read the disclosure! Often by clicking YES, you are agreeing for your credit card number and other personal information to be forwarded to a promotion company running the free offer. Free trials, discount codes at the checkout of online merchants and low-cost initial purchases are all tricks used to get consumers to agree to something in the hope of saving money. Read the fine print, decline the promotional offers or get good information first about what it will take to cancel or stop any membership. Know where your financial information is going.Review your bank account, credit card and telephone statements carefully- Companies rely on the fact that many consumers do not review their statements line by line, and will likely miss a small charge. Small charges add up quickly over time and it is the consumer who is responsible for monitoring their statements.Dispute unauthorized charges right away- You are often able to contest a charge on your bill, but only within a certain amount of time. Contact your bank, credit card company or telephone service provider as soon as you notice a questionable charge and request that it be removed. You may have to provide some additional information, but in some cases these charges can be reversed if caught soon enough.Home Improvement FraudWith spring just around the corner, Attorney General Sorrell is advising Vermonters to choose contractors carefully for their home improvement projects. “Home improvement fraud strikes at what is, for most people, your biggest investment – your home,” says Sorrell. Contractors are not generally required to be licensed in Vermont, so Sorrell advises Vermont consumers to “be diligent about asking for references, getting recommendations from friends, and insisting on seeing bond or insurance information before you sign the contract.” Home improvement fraud costs Vermonters thousands of dollars each year, according to complaint records from the Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program. Home improvement fraud is a crime in Vermont.Protect against home improvement fraud:Get recommendations and check references- If you are looking to hire a contractor, talk to friends, neighbors, colleagues and other people you trust and get recommendations of who they have used. Ask any potential contractor for several references and contact those references. Ask questions about the contractor’s work quality, timeliness and ability to stick to a budget. Find out if there were any billing or cost issues, and how those were resolved.Write a detailed work plan as part of your contract- One of the best protections you can have is a detailed plan of the work and the cost of items. Tie payment to clear, objective goals in the contract that can be easily determined. Be clear about what remedy you can seek if the contractor fails to meet the terms of the contract, and what, if any, warranty is offered on the work.Get complete and thorough information from your contractor- Believe it or not, many consumers hire a contractor, only to realize they have very little information about how to contact the contractor when a problem arises. Require the full name, address and telephone numbers for the business and the individual contractor. Ask for the name, contact information and policy number for the contractor’s liability insurance company, and verify that the policy is still active.Check complaint histories- Before you hire a contractor, contact theConsumer Assistance Program to get the complaint history for the contractor, and check the State Home Improvement Fraud Registry.Having trouble resolving unauthorized charges? Contact CAP for help!Contact the Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) toll free in Vermont with questions at (800) 649-2424 or (802) 656-3183, or visit CAP on the web atwww.uvm.edu/consumer(link is external) for more information or to file a complaint. Debt ScamSorrell is warning Vermonters about companies that are preying upon Vermonters in financial distress by offering useless or non-existent “assistance” with settling credit card debt or rescuing mortgages in foreclosure. “Many companies marketing these services to Vermonters are not licensed in Vermont and perform little or no meaningful service for the thousands of dollars they charge,” Sorrell said. “While our office has aggressively pursued the unlicensed companies we learn about, many more are in contact with Vermonters each day. If you are seeking assistance with managing your debts or mortgage, make sure you are doing business with a company licensed in Vermont.”Consumers should be wary of companies that make big promises, but want payment up front for their services. Claims such as “settle your debt for half of what you owe” or “rescue your home from foreclosure” are rarely substantiated and occasionally completely false. Some companies may never contact creditors at all.What you can do to protect yourself:Verify licensure- Companies providing debt management or mortgage assistance services in Vermont need to be licensed by the Vermont Department of Banking in order to provide services to Vermont consumers. You can check to see if a company is licensed in Vermont online at the Vermont Department of Banking website, or by calling toll free at (888) 568-4547.Decline payment up front- insist on paying only when you have proof the company is in fact working on your behalf.Seek local assistance- Local agencies, such as the non-profit Consumer Credit Counseling Service of New Hampshire and Vermont and the Vermont Department of Banking’s Mortgage Assistance Program, are resources that can help you understand and begin to manage your debts.Contact CAP- The Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) can help you recognize the red flags before you send any money away. Contact CAP to check complaint histories for a business or with any questions you may have. You can reach CAP toll free in Vermont at (800) 649-2424, or at (802) 656-3183, visit CAP on the web at www.uvm.edu/consumer(link is external).
The men’s basketball team will look to rebound after a disappointing road trip that saw the Trojans lose back-to-back games for just the second time this season. The Men of Troy entered the road trip ranked for the first time since 2008, but the two losses have USC on the outside looking in.The Trojans struggled mightily on the offensive end during the road trip in Oregon. USC shot an icy 39 percent from the field, while allowing Oregon and Oregon State to shoot over 48 percent. The Trojans lead the Pac-12 in made 3-point shots with 169, but were only able to convert 26 percent of their 3-point attempts during the road trip.The Trojans are one of the youngest teams in the nation, with just one senior on the roster, which explains their struggles on the road. All five of USC’s losses have come away from home. The Trojans have already showed much more poise than in years past, but consistency will be key if USC hopes to make a legit run at the Pac-12 title.The Washington State Cougars will make their way to the Galen Center this Thursday. The Trojans defeated the Cougars 90-77 on Jan. 1 in Pullman. Five Trojans scored in double figures, led by forward Nikola Jovanovic, who finished with 20 points on 8-12 shooting.The Cougars have lost five straight and sit at the bottom of the Pac-12 for a second consecutive season. Junior Josh Hawkinson leads the team with averages of 14 points and 10 rebounds per game. Hawkinson was the only Cougar to have any success against the Trojans in their first matchup, finishing with 19 points and 13 rebounds on 7-12 shooting.USC has been extremely well-balanced this season. The Trojans have five players averaging double digit scoring per game. One big reason for the uptick in offensive team production is the play of guards Julian Jacobs and Jordan McLaughlin. Jacobs is leading the Pac-12 in assists with 5.7 per game, with McLaughlin right behind him at 4.9 per game.Both McLaughlin and Jacobs had stellar games against the Cougars in their first matchup, finishing with a combined 31 points, nine rebounds and seven assists on 61 percent shooting. Expect the backcourt duo to attack hard against a weak Cougar defense.At first glance, defense seems to be the biggest issue for the Trojans as they give up more than 73 points per game. The Trojans are holding teams to 39 percent shooting, however, and have a net scoring margin more than 10 points, both stats good for second in the Pac-12.Freshman Chimezie Metu has been a big reason why the Trojans have taken such a leap forward on the defensive end. The first year big man is averaging 1.7 blocks per game, good for sixth in the Pac-12 and is giving opposing teams a reason to fear attacking the rim. As a team the Trojans are averaging 6.3 blocks per game, a vast improvement over years past.After playing five of their first seven conference games on the road, the Trojans play their next three at home. The Trojans are currently 11-0 at home this season, their best mark to start a season since going undefeated at home in 1943.Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Galen Center. The game will be aired on the Pac-12 Network.