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'I felt really vulnerable' | With cybercrimes on the rise, here's how you can stay safe from scams

A "fraud fighters forum" was held in Davenport as cybercrimes among older Americans rose by more than 60% in 2021, according to AARP.

DAVENPORT, Iowa — The Iowa Insurance Division (IID) held a fraud fighters forum on Tuesday, June 7, to help educate Iowans against a rising trend in cybercrimes against older Americans.  

Attendees received a presentation, panelist questions and a complimentary lunch, put on by the IID, law enforcement partners and the Iowa Attorney General's Office. 

According to AARP, in 2021, Americans ages 50 and older lost nearly $3 billion to cybercrimes, a 62% increase from 2020's data. 

"We really encourage people to double-check, double-check, double-check," said Doug Ommen, Iowa insurance commissioner. "We've become accustomed to doing commerce through the internet and scammers know that. They're going to use that to their advantage in order to take money from you." 

He says it's best to always be on alert for fraud, as the backstory scammers use will often vary to fit whatever is dominating news cycles. 

"Currently we're seeing high energy prices and so alternative energy investments are becoming very common," Ommen said. 

During the pandemic, he saw the frequency of scams — particularly against older Americans — explode. Those at home, isolated away from family and friends, make perfect targets for scammers looking to prey on the most vulnerable. 

"You should never be making an investment decision based upon a phone call to you — you know, those unsolicited types of events. Those are really red flags of problems," Ommen said. 

Often, people trying to elicit money over the phone or online will have a high sense of urgency, telling you to get the money over as quickly as possible. 

"They're going to try to get you to do things quickly, right now," said Brandon Noonan, a detective sergeant with the Davenport Police Department. "Slow it down, take your time." 

You should also be wary of things that sound too good to be true, or offers that are only good for that day. Never send money one day, with the promise of getting more back later, says the IID. 

If you believe you're the victim of a scam, you can also contact the IID to ask if the person or organization you're dealing with is legitimate. Don't give out personal information to someone you don't know — ever. And if someone is asking for payments in Apple iTunes cards, eBay gift cards, Bitcoin or other out-of-the-ordinary monetary forms, it's probably a scam. 

If you live in Davenport and fear you've falling victim to fraud, you can submit a report on DPD's Online Reporting System.

It's a painful lesson that Debbie Mlakar hopes no one else has to learn. She attended Tuesday's luncheon after falling victim to a scam herself. Mlakar had been sitting at home when she received a phone call. 

"They said, 'We're cutting your Iowa, Illinois power and light within 30 minutes. You got to put money in right now,'" she said. "They started screaming at me saying they needed a debit card." 

Tired, confused and scared, Mlakar eventually handed over her checking account numbers, driver's license, social security number and credit card information. 

"I felt really vulnerable and dumb for letting them have all this information," she said. "I was just such a nervous wreck." 

Now she wants to raise awareness, especially for older Americans who might be more vulnerable to such scams. 

"I got everything straightened out finally and I can live again. I'm not afraid," Mlakar said. "But I think people need to know that there's so many scams." 

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