Our scam hunter offers his top 10 tips to protect yourself
Suspect a scam? Call Al — he’s your pal!
Attorney General Tom Miller, right, and Investigator Al Perales greet visitors to the Iowa State Fair.
Don't feel pressured: Stop, think and call for help, investigator advises
Al Perales is an investigator in our Consumer Protection Division. In his 12 years in the office, he’s seen all types of scams and tracked down many thieves and charlatans. He regularly speaks to groups around the state to warn of common scams and answer questions.
If you’re confronted with an offer to buy a product or service or make a donation — while you are online, on the phone, answering the front door — he advises to stop and think before acting. Here are his top 10 tips for avoiding scams:
- If you don’t recognize the number, don’t answer the call. Let it go to voicemail. If you do answer, hang up if it’s a robocall or other unsolicited offer. “It’s OK not to be ‘Iowa nice,’” Perales said. Don’t press a button to stop receiving calls or say "yes" in response to a question; it shows the robocaller that yours is a working number and will likely increase the number of questionable calls you receive. For more tips, check out "Robocall wars: How you can fight back."
- Never give out personal or financial information, including your Social Security number, bank account or credit card numbers, date of birth or passwords. Scammers have tricky ways to get you to fill in the blanks in information they already have about you. The more complete the information the have about you, the easier it is for scammers to steal your identity, access your accounts, and scam your family and friends.
- Never pay with gift cards. That’s a red flag: Gift cards are not a standard form of currency and a charity or government agency would never ask you to pay in gift cards. Consumers who send gift card or prepaid card codes with scammers won’t get that money back. In general, paying by credit card offers consumers more protection than cash or debit card.
- Resist the pressure to act quickly or secretly. “If it’s good only for today, walk away,” Perales says. Scammers use urgency to force consumers into rash decisions that they might avoid if they were given time to evaluate the situation or talk with family, friends, or law enforcement. No legitimate offer will ever require you to decide before hanging up the phone.
- Don’t rely on your caller ID or believe official sounding names and titles. Scammers can “spoof” the name and phone number that appears on your caller ID to make it look like they’re calling from your local area code, Washington, D.C., from a business or organization you know, or anything they need to make their scam seem legitimate. Also, don’t be fooled by a charity’s name; names like Veterans Relief Network sound good, but aren’t always truthful. Check whether a non-profit organization is registered with the Iowa Secretary of State; or the IRS’s Tax Exempt Organization Search , and review its ratings with groups like the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator, Charity Watch, and Guidestar before giving money.
- Never pay for a prize. Many scammers offer sweepstakes winnings or grant funds if you pay cash or gift cards or provide confidential information first. “If you have to pay, it’s not a prize,” Perales says.
- Deal locally, face to face. Work with people and businesses you know. It’s not a guarantee, but you can reduce the chance of being scammed. Beware of ads on Craigslist and other online market sites. If it’s a car or other substantial purchase, be sure to check out the item in person. Remember that under Iowa’s Door to Door sales law, you have three business days to cancel a purchase for any reason. The act applies if a sale is for more than $25, if the sale is made at a location other than the seller's place of business, and if the goods or services will be used for personal, family or household purposes.
- Take time each month to go through bank and credit card statements. Dispute suspicious charges with the bank or credit card company. To protect your identity, you can place a security freeze on your credit report, free of charge.
- Remember Al’s “Big Three”: “If you are ever in a situation where they’re asking for money, and they’re asking for money right now, and there’s fear, excitement, or pulling of your heart strings, it’s a scam. It’s a downright scam.” Scammers know how to play upon emotions to win your trust and move you to act.
- Double check! Do your homework. Do an internet search (or ask someone you trust to help you) to check out a business or charity. Look up the organization in the phone book to verify phone numbers or other information you’ve been given.
Perales invites consumers to contact him if they suspect a scam or have questions. Remember: “Call Al — he’s your pal!”
How to file a complaint:
If you believe you’ve been scammed or you suspect a charity is acting fraudulently, contact your local law enforcement agency or the Iowa Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division. To file a complaint, go here or call 515-281-5926 (in Des Moines area) or 888-777-4590 (outside the metro area).
For more tips, follow the Iowa Attorney General on Facebook and Twitter at @AGIowa