Commissioner Doug Ommen describing some of the common scams that Iowans may encounter while dealing with scammers during his speech at the Tama Fraud Fighters forum at Meskwaki.
Photo by Cyote Williams

TAMA — Scammers have become more prevalent in today’s society than ever before, especially with the increase in technology and remote nature the world has been moving towards since the pandemic.

According to the AARP, Americans 50 and older lost nearly $3 billion in cybercrimes, which is a 62 percent increase from 2020.

The Iowa Fraud Fighters mission is to educate Iowans, specifically elderly Iowans who are targeted by these scams.

During a recent event at the Meskwaki Settlement, commissioner Doug Ommen and investigator Al Perales from the Iowa Attorney General’s office spoke to the crowd gathered in the conference hall.

This was the fraud fighter’s fifth and final event of the year. One of the memorable moments from the forum was a video presented to the audience describing one Iowan’s horror story.

Investigator Al Perales giving out his ten tips of how to avoid being scammed, and detailing his TIP acronym during his speech. Photo by Cyote Williams

A retired schoolteacher, Martha-Jo Ennis, lost over $1 million of her retirement savings and the money she invested from the sale of her family to a Ponzi scheme.

Ennis hasn’t been able to regain all the money she lost, and it’s affected her ability to trust. She still thinks about the event every day.

Ommen considers Ennis a hero because she spoke up and reported what happened to her. Oftentimes, the reason why these scammers are able to get away is because of the victims’ embarrassment of what happened to them.

They don’t want people to know that they fell into this trap when the best thing they can do is always the opposite.

Some of the signs that someone might have fallen victim to one of these scams include isolation from friends and family, unkempt appearance and unjustified selling of property.

There are ways to defend yourself against scams. Keep in mind that nothing has to be invested today, and be aware of the ‘invest today’ push. Nothing worth investing in will require you to invest on the spot without you being able to do further research.

Common scams that the Fraud Fighters run into are romance scams, sweepstakes scams such as winning the lottery and Facebook grants. Amazon scams and grandparent scams are two of the common scams pointed out by Ommen.

“It’s often very difficult when you’re alone and the scammers know that and can isolate you. They’ll use tricks to pull at your heartstrings. With the grandparent scam, we get reports weekly from Iowans who have been solicited in that scam. The way it works is that a senior citizen, often living alone, will get a call from an individual with a younger voice saying ‘Hi grandma, how are you? This is your grandson,” said Ommen.

After this, the grandparent will respond by saying hello back with their grandson’s name.

That’s all the scammer will need to go off and they will then ask the victim to send them money, possibly using an excuse such as they’re on vacation with friends and need some funds to get back home.

Romance scams are similar. They will target individuals that they know are alone and use their emotions against them.

“This is about developing a community perspective on fraud. That’s why we call it fraud fighters. We deputize the people that are here and hopefully give them some responsibility to share the information they’ve gained here,” Ommen said.

His goal is to build a base of fraud fighting deputies around the entire state to prevent more fraud from happening to Iowans. One Tama county resident in attendance, Patty Henle, fell victim to these scams.

“I was out in the yard one day and I got a phone call from Amazon, where they told me something was wrong with my order and they said to call back at this number. They were asking for information that I wouldn’t give because they should already have all that information. After I hung up I realized that it was a scam and they were caught,” she said.

The Amazon scam is one that the fraud fighters warn people heavily about, as it’s one of the most common types of scams they deal with.

It comes in the form of a text or a phone call most often. The person on the other line will try to solicit financial information by pretending something is wrong with an order. Once they have that information, they will use it to steal money from the victims.

After the derecho, Henle received a letter in the mail with a bill for roofing repairs. Someone had been claiming that they owed repairs on their home, so they scammed the bank through Henle’s name.

Investigator Al Perales has been involved with the Fraud Fighters for over six years.

Unfortunately, it is incredibly difficult to prosecute the people behind these scams, because the jurisdiction of the people who deal with local complaints doesn’t always match up with where the scammers are at.

“The scams that we talk about are imposter scams, and many times these scams come from overseas. The scammers are good at what they do, they’re very skilled at putting as many layers as possible between them and the scam,” said Perales.

It’s also very difficult to get people their money back because of how scammers get people to send them money.

“The scammer will always ask you for money in ways that you have no defenses. They’re going to ask you to wire money, send cash, buy a gift card or send a check. They will always ask you in ways where you send them money, and the money’s gone,” Perales said. “One of our prime priorities at our office is to raise awareness and educate Iowans, especially older Iowans about scams and deceptive practices that are plaguing our state.”

Perales handles a lot of cases involving fraud and has spoken to many different Iowans about how they’ve been scammed.

“If you had the opportunity to sit in my car for one week, you would have the opportunity to talk to good, hardworking Iowans all over the state who lose money in a snap. They believe something that the scammer presents that’s not true,” he said. “But it feels true, it feels real, it feels legit. But it’s just smoke and mirrors.”

Scams come in all shapes and sizes. It could be a knock on the door, a phone call, text or an email. Perales wants people to remember the acronym TIP.

T — Threat. The threat is supposed to raise your emotions, those emotions could be fear, sorrow or excitement.

I — Immediacy. The scammer will make it feel like there is a sense of urgency, where if you don’t act now then you’re either going to miss out on the opportunity they’re presenting to you, or there will be consequences if you don’t jump into action immediately.

P — Payment. Payment is always going to be involved.

Perales is available at the Attorney General’s office at 515-281-5926, or 888-777-4590 for those who are outside of the Des Moines Area.

Medicare scams have always been targeted at older Iowans.

Scammers attempt to get ahold of Medicare card numbers to defraud the government and commit identity theft. If you believe you or someone you know has become a victim of this particular type of scam you should call Senior Medical Patrol and SHIIP at the number 1-800-351-4664 or visit their website, where you can find a local office.

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