Iowans, Midwesterners More Succeptible to Scams, Experts Say

By Brady Smith, Anchor/Reporter

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By Brady Smith

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Consumer protection and legal experts seem to agree that Iowans, specifically older ones, tend to be more likely to be victimized by scammers than people in other parts of the country. They say it comes down to wholesome, Midwestern values.

Jo Ennis of Marion was brought up to trust people, even if they were strangers. So, she had no suspicions when a man came to her door in 2006, offering investment advice.

"Somebody came to my door, and acted like he had an appointment, and I didn't know him, Ennis said. "He said, 'I just came to talk to you about your investments.'"

The man she spoke with that day eventually led her to Noah Aulwes. He started asking her for money, including her savings from years as a teacher, and money she had from selling off a family farm.

"He talked me into handing over the check for that to invest," Ennis told us.

But she didn't see many returns on those investments, and Aulwes often gave no explanation of where her money was going. Over time, she noticed things weren't adding up.

"I saw in one statement that I finally got out of him, that I had a $10,000 deduction, and I asked him. I went to his office and I said, 'I want to know about this $10,000 that you took out.' He said, 'that's nothing,' and I said, 'it is something, and I want to know what it is.'"

At the time, Ennis had no idea that she'd been wrapped up in a Ponzi-style scheme with several other victims. Aulwes would later plead guilty to securities fraud, theft, and money laundering.

It's a story that Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller has heard time and time again: Iowans being taken advantage of.

"They are a little less suspicious, a little less cynical, and in some context that can be good, but not in the consumer fraud context," Miller said.

Miller told us that people in Iowa tend to be more trusting and trustworthy than people in other parts of the country.

Barbara Green with the Better Business Bureau agrees.

"Scammers tend to target the corn belt, which is the Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska area," Green explained. "We tend to want to believe in the best in people, and when people tell us something, and they give us their word, we tend to think they are telling us the truth."

Iowans may be trusting, but they're smart, too.

Joanne Roster of Vinton felt something was off when a January phone call brought her some amazing news.

"You have won $75,000, and the guy just kept saying, 'are you happy? Are you really happy?'"

Roster was happy, until the caller - claiming to be from Publishers Clearing House - started asking for money.

"On the third phone call, he said, 'I need $900, and that's to pay the government your share of the taxes,'" Roster said. "He kept saying, 'well my word is good.' I said, 'I don't know you, so your word is not good.'"

But for every deflected or failed scam attempt, Miller says there are dozens, maybe hundreds more that succeed and go unreported or undetected. Scamming is a business worth tens of millions of dollars a year, making a profit off honest people like Ennis, who said it's still difficult to know how much money she lost.

"The total amount of what he took before he gave anything back was well over a million dollars," Ennis said.

She learned a valuable lesson through that ordeal: trust should be earned, not given freely.

"I thought I was a better judge of character apparently than I am. I've learned a lot since all this happened," Ennis told us, something she always remembers when someone comes to her door.

"Well, if it's Girl Scout cookies, I'll buy some," she laughed.

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