Seniors beware: The internet may seem like a communication and shopping playground, but bad guys are lurking everywhere, just waiting to swindle you.
That was the message Al Perales gave those who attended his presentation at the Burlington Public Library on Wednesday. Perales, an investigator in the Iowa Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division, has seen all types of scams and tracked down many thieves. He regularly speaks to groups around the state to warn of common scams and answer questions.
Perales advised his audience to stop and think before acting if confronted with an offer to buy a product or service or make a donation — whether online, on the phone, or answering the front door.
“Scammers will try to find ways to connect with you,” he said. “They’re focused on everyone in this room. We live in a scam culture.”
Perales offered anecdotes about Iowans cheated out of money through online and telephone fraud: the Grinnell man who took a fraudulent loan to get his grandson out of jail; the DeWitt woman who believed a telephone call telling her she’d won $5.5M — “and a white Mercedes Benz” — and was bilked out of $50,000.
“She thought she was going win that big prize,” Perales said.
Perales told of a woman from northwest Iowa who was involved in a romance scam.
“The romance scam is one of the evilest scams out there,” he said. “It deals with love, and hope, and the future, and the scammer turns it into something very, very ugly.”
The woman lost a million dollars believing she was going to be with her newly-found online man forever.
Perales said scammers target older Iowans in particular.
Perales said scammers pick on older Iowans in part because of time and money.
“The scammer knows you’re available, and that makes you a bigger target,” he said. “You’ve worked hard all your life, and you have that nest egg.”
Perales said Iowans are particularly susceptible to fraud because “we’re Iowa Nice.”
“The way we were raised in Iowa, we’re slow to be angered, we’re slow to judge, we’re forgiving,” he said. “That attracts and enables scammers.”
Older Iowans can also feel alone and isolated, and tricksters feed on those feelings.
No. 1: Amazon
Nobody wants to pay for anything they didn’t purchase, Perales explained.
“The Amazon scam is good because you’re calling Amazon,” Perales said, referring to fraudulent emails telling a consumer that his order has been fulfilled and a certain amount of money is owed. Replies to those emails don’t go to Amazon, however; they go to a scammer’s website impersonating Amazon.
And when you call to get things straightened out, you still aren’t safe.
“You think you’re calling Amazon, so your guard is down,” he said, and related another story of Amazon woe.
“This woman received a phone call (thanking her) for ordering an iPhone: ‘If you have any questions, call this number,'” Perales said.
“Then she got a text with the same thing.”
The woman called the number thinking it was Amazon — it wasn’t — and was told someone was ordering a computer on her account and was then told she was being forwarded to the DEA and, when connected, “Agent Smith” said her social security number was used in Texas to rent a car involved in a drug bust.
After browbeating the woman with dire predictions of possible criminal charges, “Agent Smith” talked her into sending her $20,000 life savings to California — by inserting cash in between pages of books and sending those overnight.
Perales was able to get the money back because, in part, the two-hour time zone difference between Iowa and California gave him time to contact the overnight service before the books were delivered.
No. 2: Facebook grant scam
The Facebook grant scam is like all grant fraud, whereby scam artists, sometimes posing as your friends, promise access to grants or free money.
“This scam is good because you get a message from one of your (Facebook) friends,” Perales said, and explained that the Facebook user will get a message from someone they believe they know, telling them about a government list of people who are due money.
“They believe they’re getting information from someone they trust,” he said. “And all their friends think they’re getting a message from a friend.”
No. 3: Mid-American Energy scam
Imposters pretending to represent a utility company or the Iowa Utilities Board claim the prey’s last few payments haven’t gone through; they then threaten to disconnect potential victims’ electric service unless they pay immediately by phone with a prepaid money card.
In Iowa, service cannot be disconnected if the weather is forecast to be 20 degrees Fahrenheit or colder within the next 24 hours.
No. 4: IRS scam
The day of Perales’s presentation, the IRS warned that MMS/SMS/text scams — known as smishing — have increased exponentially. Smishing campaigns target mobile phone users, and the scam messages often look like they’re coming from the IRS, offering lures like fake COVID-19 relief, tax credits or help setting up an IRS online account. Recipients of these IRS-related scams can report them to email@example.com.
Remember: The IRS doesn’t initiate contact with taxpayers by email, text messages or social media channels to request personal or financial information.
No. 5: Jury duty scam
In the jury duty scam, citizens are targeted by phone calls and emails threatening them with prosecution for failing to comply with jury service in federal or state courts. The recipients are pressured to provide confidential data, potentially leading to identity theft and fraud.
In Iowa, The court does not call, email or send a fax to tell you a warrant has been issued. The court’s official forms may only be submitted by U.S. mail or over the secure “eJuror” website. Valid warrants will always be served in person by a U.S. Marshal or other law enforcement officer.
“Remember Stop Drop and Roll?” Perales asked, referring to the fire safety technique taught to children. “Today it’s Stop, Think and Call the Iowa Attorney General’s office if things seem off-balance or questionable.”
If you suspect a scam or fraud, call the AARP Fraud Watch Network Helpline: 877-908-3360.
Learn more about Fraud Fighter at FraudFighter.com or call AARP at 877-926-8300.
More fraud resources are at iowaattorneygeneral.gov or call 888-777-4590.
For help with Medicare fraud, contact Senior Medicare Patrol at shiip.iowa.gov and 800-351-4664.
Insurance and investment scam assistance is at iid.iowa.gov and 877-955-1212.
Veterans can go to aarp/VetsFraudCenter or call the AARP Fraud Watch Network 877-908-3360.
- If you don’t recognize the number, don’t answer.
- Never give out personal or financial data.
- Never pay with gift cards.
- If it’s good only for today, walk away.
- Don’t rely on caller ID or official-sounding names.
- If you have to pay, it’s not a prize.
- Deal locally, face to face.
- Check bank and credit card statements.
- Beware solicitors using fear, excitement or pity.
- Research a business or charity.