Workshop warns against scams

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By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

From phone scams to malicious computer pop-ups or emails, millions of Americans fall prey to fraudulent activity each year, resulting in losses of billions of dollars.

Clayton County is not immune. In the past year, Elkader residents alone have lost nearly $30,000, said Gerry Frick, an officer with the Elkader Police Department.

“Fraud cases are rampant, with people thinking they can make a quick buck,” said Frick, who led a fraud prevention workshop hosted by Alpine Communications in Marquette last month.

With such a staggering statistic, said Sara Hertrampf, sales and marketing manager at Alpine Communications, they wanted to help.

“We thought, ‘What do we need to do to help inform customers and people in general, letting them know who to call and how to prevent it?’” she said.

The Marquette workshop was the second Alpine has held this year, with the goal of keeping people safe and arming them with information to protect themselves.

Phone scams

Despite increasing online activity, phone scams are still one of the most prolific ways to defraud people. Last year, said Frick, 17.6 million Americans lost $8.6 billion this way.

“Nearly half,” he noted, “said scammers called them on their cell phones.”

Frick said one popular scam has the scammer claiming to be the IRS, telling people they are delinquent on their taxes. The scammer will threaten to call law enforcement if the victim does not purchase a Visa or Amazon credit card or gift card and provide the scammer with the information. The scammer, said Frick, will then use the information to make charges.

“They don’t want your actual credit card,” he said, “because you can cancel it.”

Frick said it’s important to note that the IRS will never call your home, demand immediate payment or threaten you with arrest.

In another popular scam, people will receive a call from someone claiming to be from Microsoft, stating that you have a virus on your computer.

“They will try to get remote access to your computer,” Frick said, warning that people should never do so. If the scammer succeeds, he/she could gain access to any personal data on the computer, including passwords and account information.

Energy company disconnection scams have also circulated in the area, Frick said. Through this scam, people will receive a call from a scammer claiming to be a representative of Alliant Energy, Black Hills Energy or even a local utility company, stating you have a late utility bill. 

As with the IRS scam, said Frick, the scammer will request a Visa or Amazon gift or credit card.

If you receive a suspicious call, Frick recommends calling the utility company directly to verify. 

“Don’t give any information over the phone unless you’re sure who you’re talking to,” he said. “Ask for an operator number; if they don’t have it, don’t give them your information.”

Telemarketer scams are also  rampant, but can often be spotted by telltale wordage, Frick said. Those red flags include “you’ve been specifically selected for an offer,” “free bonus if you buy the product” or “one of five valuable prizes.”

Other telemarketing scams claim that you’ve won money in a foreign lottery or will receive money from a long-lost relative, Frick shared.

“They’ll ask you to send money to them so the money can clear customs,” he said.

A more recent scam, said Frick, is one of the scariest. Sometimes called “grandma phone fraud,” this scam tells people, particularly grandparents, that a family member has been hurt in an accident and that they need to send money to help.

By tapping into people’s emotions, said Frick, scammers can get them to do things they would otherwise never consider.

When receiving a fraudulent call, Frick said it’s important to get off the phone.

“The longer you stay on the phone, the longer they can try to convince you to give them money,” he shared.

“If you have caller ID, it’s a good way to screen calls,” Hertrampf added. “By answering the phone, it’s the first way you become a target. They can frustrate you and wear you down.”

Online scams

A common online problem, said Frick, are pop-up scams. Through this, people will get a pop-up box on their screen instructing them to pay in order to have a virus removed from the computer.

“They will ask for control of the computer, when, in actuality, they are putting malicious software on it,” he said. “From that point, any credit card information you enter could be directly downloaded to them.”

People should not call the number listed in the pop-up, nor provide any credit card information, Frick said.

Emails can also be a cause for concern. Telltale signs that an email is fraudulent, Frick explained, include a false sense of urgency, fake links or questionable attachments.

“Attachments can contain malware,” he said. “Never open them unless you’re 100 percent sure they are legitimate.”

If links are provided in an email, make sure the links take you to secure websites only, said Frick. If a site is secure, it’s URL will contain an “s” in “https,” he remarked.

While online, said Hertrampf, “it’s important to have adequate anti-malware and virus protection. Keep your computer protected. For a lot of people, when their trial version expires, they don’t update it.”

Ways to stay protected

Frick said there are several ways people can protect themselves from fraudulent activity. Chief among them, he said, is using caution on Facebook and other social media websites.

“Scammers love your personal information,” he said, adding that they can discover photos and other details about you and your family to use against you. “Don’t pick easy passwords that scammers could guess by looking at your social media.

Frick also advises people to be skeptical and to check everything, whether it’s a company who contacted them or a check they received.

“People believe what’s sent to them. They don’t think people will lie to them,” he said. “Scammers are not always foreign people with accents. Half of all scams originate stateside. People in this country—even your neighbors—will rip you off too.”

Another key mode of protection, Frick said, is to put your phone number on the “Do Not Call” list at donotcall.gov.

Lastly, he noted, let law enforcement help you.

“Let law enforcement know when you get suspicious calls,” he said.

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