Stop, think, call: FD hears more than a word of warning as officials host fraud fighting forum

-Messenger photo by Joe Sutter Lori Davis, public relations, Iowa Insurance Commissioner Doug Ommen, and Bob Singer of Fort Dodge, look over the information packet provided at the Fraud Fighters Forum Wednesday. Singer had already taken some of the advice offered that day to protect his credit.

When in doubt, slow down and make a call before committing to anything.

That might be the takeaway from a vast amount of information on fraud, scams and Medicare cons presented at the Fraud Fighters Forum Wednesday in Fort Dodge.

At least one audience member already knew that lesson.

“We had a free lunch here today,” said Doug Ommen, Iowa’s insurance commissioner. “One of you called down to Des Moines to make sure we were legitimate. That’s good.”

Sometimes a free lunch is offered right before a high-pressure sales pitch, Ommen said — “They feed you, they make you happy and then they take your money.”

-Messenger photo by Joe Sutter Neil Schultz, from the Fraud Watch Network of the AARP, speaks at the Fraud Fighters Forum Wednesday. Schultz warned his audience to simply not talk to soliciters on the phone when they don't know who is calling.

There was a large crowd at the Best Western Starlite Village Inn & Suites for the informational session presented by the Iowa Insurance Division, the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, the Iowa Department on Aging and AARP.

Ommen said the three most important things to remember are to call someone to check up on offers, slow down — there’s no decision that has to be made “today” — and to not be alone.

Scammers try to push their victims to commit right away, and to isolate them from friends or family who might ask questions about the decision, Ommen said.

A common sign of a scam is when someone asks for a bill or fee to be paid in an unusual way, such as through purchasing gift cards, said Neil Schultz, with AARP’s Fraud Watch Network.

Nobody is exempt from getting fraudulent calls or emails.

-Messenger photo by Joe Sutter Speakers offer answers to questions at the conclusion of the Fraught Fighters Forum Wednesday: from left, Patty Price, Senior Health Insurance Information Program training & education coordinator; Brian Majeski, Iowa Department on Ageing Executive Officer; Doug Ommen, Iowa Insurance Commissioner, and Al Perales, Iowa Attorney General's Office investigator.

“I’m having a great 2017. I have an email here that says I won $185,000 in a lottery I didn’t know I entered,” Schultz said. “I have another one that says I won $2 million. I have another one for $10 million. … This one is from the United Nations, it has the official seal.

“I know this one is an honest proposal because it says right at the top, ‘an honest proposal.'”

Scammers have sophisticated tricks to play on people’s emotions, and intelligent people fall for scams in the right circumstances, said Al Perales, Iowa Attorney General’s Office investigator.

Contact information:

Have any questions about an investment product? Curious if a call from the IRS or a lottery might actually be a scam? Multiple Iowa departments are available to check up on things and offer help.

Iowa Insurance Division or

(515) 281-5705

Iowa Attorney General’s Office

(515) 281-5926

Senior Health Insurance Information Program (SHIIP)

(800) 351-4664

Iowa Department on Aging

(800) 532-3213

LifeLong Links

(866) 468-7887

Legal Hotline for Older Iowans

(800) 992-8161

“The situation is so strong, the individual has tunnel vision. All they can see is the money they’re going to win, or helping their grandparent out, or not getting in trouble with the IRS,” Perales said. “There are so many red flags going on, but they don’t pay attention to them.”

These scams typically involve excitement, fear, and something that pulls at the heartstrings, he said.

Imposter scams have now taken the No. 1 spot in number of complaints, moving identity theft to No. 2, Perales said.

“This is when a scammer pretends to be someone they are not to defraud you,” Perales said. “They could be a friend, a family member, a business, a charity, a potential loved one.”

He recalled a woman writing out the details of a scam she’d fallen for, who ended up sending $20,000 thinking she would win a grand prize.

“She said this, and I’ll never forget it, as she was writing the complaint,” Perales said. “She said, ‘When I was going through the scam, it felt so real. Now that I’m writing it, it feels so silly.'”

Ommen said consumers shouldn’t be afraid to hang up on someone — no need to be “Iowa nice.” Scammers will take whatever tack they think will best engage your emotions and convince you to give them information — being incredibly kind in some situations, or belligerent in others.

“It will bridge from being nice and friendly to using intimidation,” Ommen said. “Some of the recordings I’ve heard and played in front of juries, it’s awful what people will do.”

On any investment people should double check, double check, double check, Perales said.

“Talk to a friend. Talk to a family member. Call the local library. Call city hall. Call our office. Call the Iowa Insurance Division. Call the AARP. There are so many avenues to go to double-check,” Perales said.

Brian Majeski, Iowa Department on Aging executive officer, said power of attorney abuse has become “legal dynamite.”

He’s from the Office of Substitute Decision Making, which deals especially with that abuse.

Power of attorney status comes in different forms. Someone can be your power of attorney in general, or only for specific rights, or the power of attorney can be triggered by some eventuality — usually the person being incapacitated.

“Before you sign off, consult legal counsel,” Majeski said. “There’s a lot of forms available online that you can just sign off and have somebody notarize, but it’s probably best to have somebody educated in that area of probate.

“You should also speak with somebody who specializes in estate planning, because there could be other avenues that would be less restrictive.”

Speaking on Medicare fraud was Patty Price, training and education coordinator for the Senior Health Insurance Information Program.

Price said new Medicare cards will be issued starting in 2018 which will no longer have the Social Security number printed on them. This will increase safety for older Iowans, she said.

Iowans should watch out during the time of year when Part D or Medicare Advantage plans can change, because that’s a top time to be targeted by scammers.

There are some protections built into the law.

“Agents cannot cold-call you. They cannot just stop by and knock at your door,” she asid. “If you run into someone who is doing this, you need to report it to SHIIP.”

SHIIP also can help verify any information is correct.

Calls from scammers can appear to come from any number, Ommen said during a lengthy question-and-answer session.

“I used to tell people not to answer a call if it wasn’t from your area,” he said.

But now, scammers can appear to be a local number, or the local sheriff — or even to be calling from your own number, to entice you to pick up the phone.

“My state phone number is on one of these lists,” Ommen said, explaining how he gets numerous false calls appearing to come from Des Moines. “If it’s the governor, I answer it. Otherwise I don’t.”

Sometimes the scam call will say to press a number to be taken off the list, Perales said. If you do that it tells the scammer there’s a person at that number who will answer the phone, and more calls may come.

Scammers are difficult for law enforcement to track.

Perales said one scam involved older folks being offered a “work from home” deal in shipping. They had a phone interview and got hired, but eventually learned they were working for a scammer. The scammer was using stolen credit cards to buy expensive items like iPads, and shipping it to them to be sent on to a foreign address to help avoid detection.

“We found out it was a Russian individual living in Paris,” he said.

This difficulty is why officials need everyone to look out for each other — warning others of scams, and reporting scams when they are attempted, Ommen said.

“We want you to be our ‘neighborhood watch,'” he said.

In answer to another question, the experts said there’s no good way to detect “skimmers” which might be attached to the outside of a gas pump to steal credit card information.

“If it seeems like it hangs up a bit, that could be a sign, but some of them are so sophisticated,” Perales said. “I usually pay inside.”