We’ve got a lot to talk about today, and not all of it pertains to coronavirus.  But that’s the topic where I want to start. 

Crooks pay attention to the news, and tailor their scams to reflect topical events. The coronavirus is no different.

On March 9, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced warnings against seven companies who promoted unapproved or misbranded products that claimed they treated or prevented coronavirus.  The products include teas, essential oils and colloidal silver. No scientific evidence shows these products, or any other drug for that matter, will prevent or treat coronavirus. 

The seven companies warned include Vital Silver, Aromatherapy Ltd, N-ergetics, GuruNanda LLC, Vivify Holistic Clinic, Herbal Amy LLC, and The Jim Bakker Show. 

SECOND GUESS ALL OFFERS OF DIRECT PAYMENTS

In news closely related to COVID-19, various political leaders are proposing economic relief, with the some of that relief proposed to take the form of direct payments from the government to us. Whether that happens or not, I can almost guarantee scammers will incorporate this possibility in their schemes. We don’t know how this will look, but I can tell you how it will not look:

• The government will not ask you to pay anything up front to get any payment. No fees or charges. Nothing.

• The government will not call to ask for your Social Security number, bank account number, or credit card. Anyone calling wanting this is a crook.

• As I write this, none of these payments are more than proposals. Anyone calling you to tell you they can get the money immediately is lying.

If you hear of any such calls, let me know.

REFUND CHECKS MAILED THIS TIME FOR REAL

Over 109,000 victims who sent money to scammers are receiving refunds of $153 million mailed to them. These payments results from a settlement with the U.S. government in 2017. 

The government sued Western Union, and charged them criminally for allowing some local agents to engage in money laundering schemes, knowing full well the money came from victims of crime. 

The actual settlement totaled $586 million, and this $153 million represents the first installment, with more installments planned for this year. 

I helped several local people submit their claims for this refund in 2017 and 2018. If you received your refund, let me know. If you didn’t yet receive it, let me know and I can pass on what I know of the rest of the process. 

Just because Western Union paid this settlement does not mean crooks stopped using their wire transfer services to move money from the pockets of unsuspecting victims of fraud to themselves. Any stranger who asks you to wire money — or accept money wired to you — is trying to cheat you arrange for you to be an accomplice to money laundering. 

Neither is a good thing.

THREE IOWA WOMEN CHARGED AS MONEY MULES

You can get into serious trouble for sending and receiving money, what’s called money muling. The FBI arrested three women — Marilyn Sterk, Jennifer Sterk, and Teresa Sterk Vanballe — from the Pella and Knoxville area on Feb. 28 on charges including wire fraud, mail fraud, and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Their indictment tells us the three allegedly conspired with others, including some in India, to create sham tech support companies registered in Iowa. 

They then opened bank accounts for these sham companies. They deposited checks into these accounts mailed to them by victims of tech support scams. The victims became victims after malware disabled their computers, and they called the “help” phone numbers displayed on their screens, court documents said. The “help” actually came from the accomplices of the three Iowa women, who persuaded their victims to write checks for worthless computer support programs. 

The three Iowa women collected over $4 million since 2014, keeping five to ten percent as commission, and sending the remainder to India. 

Their attorney gave a statement to media, describing the three women as victims themselves who were“lured by a purported computer support company of India to provide banking assistance.” The attorney noted the law presumed their innocence, and declared them, “indeed innocent”.

There’s a local connection here. In May 2018, a Grand Mound woman contacted me to report she sent a check to Cloudcomm after they “helped” her cancel a subscription. I checked out Cloudcomm and found it associated with Marilyn Sterk. I talked to her on the phone. She talked about her business. I told her it sounded like money laundering to me. I guess she didn’t believe me. 

Criminals would find it much more difficult to continue their fraud schemes without the help of some of our own neighbors in moving their money. If you think you might be involved in a money mule or money transfer scam, stop transferring money.  If you know someone doing this, let me know, so we can get it stopped.

CONTACT SENIORS VS. CRIME

 Let me know about scams, fraud, or other crookedness you run across. Most of what I learn, I learn from you. Contact me at Seniors vs. Crime, Clinton County Sheriff’s Office, (563) 242-9211 extension 4433, or email me at randymeier@gapa911.us.