MARION COUNTY, Iowa — Three central Iowa women are accused of being part of a more than $4 million international fraud scheme.
Jennifer Sterk of Pella, Marilyn Sterk of Otley, and Teresa Sterk Vanballe of Knoxville were arrested by the FBI Friday. They each face charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and mail fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
According to a federal grand jury indictment, the scheme started in 2014. Officials say the Sterks conspired with a man from Maryland and another in India, plus a network of co-conspirators that were not named.
The three women created multiple tech support companies each filed under one of their names with the state. Each business dissolved on August 9, 2019. Some of those include Alignteq, Tech Crew, IDT Info Solutions, Azure Support, Cloudcomm Technologies, M&A Tech, Toler Tech, and Tydan Tech.
The Iowa Attorney Generals office told WHO-TV that they started to receive complaints in 2016, prompting an investigation. Later that year the Better Business Bureau forwarded 34 complaints from consumers ranging from the years 2014 to 2015.
“We knew there was a problem. There were looking over these complaints and there were a lot of commonalities In some cases people thought they were dealing with Apply, Microsoft, Amazon, or Verizon,” said Lynn Hicks communications director for the Iowa Attorney Generals Office.
Investigators say the group sought to steal as much money as possible by selling worthless and unnecessary computer programs and services to unsuspecting victims across the country. The group lured in victims by using pop-up advertisements and internet search results to get the victims to call a bogus technical support company.
The thieves got remote access to the victims’ computers, ran fake diagnostic tests and then convinced them to purchase unnecessary software and services for between $300 and $1,500.
Helen Lapakko from Minneapolis says that’s exactly what happened to her back in 2018. Originally she was calling what she thought was an Amazon support number, but it ended up being one of the Sterk’s companies called Tolar Tech. A technician told her on the phone that she had a virus on her computer that needed to be fixed.
“They said they were in Iowa and so when I talked to him, because I was so suspicious I said where in Iowa? He gave me a name and I said is that close to Des Moines or Ames [he said] oh we are way out in a field somewhere ,” said Lapakko. “It’s like he didn’t event know where he was so then I really was suspicous. Then he started quoting this price like for $300 he could solve this problem for me. One they didn’t even know where they were…..so I finally said you’re a scam and I hung up.”
Lapakko says she reported her experience to the FBI.
Court documents say the Sterks received between five and 10 percent commission for their services and then wire transferred the rest of the money to India. Federal authorities are now seeking more than $4 million to be forfeited by the defendants in the case.
Hicks also says Marilyn Sterks had a relationship with her business partners in India and that four years ago those business partners where in Des Moines meeting with lawyers to set up more tech help companies.
“She brought her business partners over to meet with us. And so an attorney and investigator from our office sat down with her and the gentleman and explained what the Iowa consumer fraud act entailed and how it applied to them, and explained to all of them that for example, they could not pretend to be someone they were not. They couldn’t portray that they were actually Microsoft tech support or another company. And they also explained why, you know, they couldn’t use deception. They couldn’t overcharge,” said Hicks.
The Attorney Generals Office continued to receive complaints from consumers. Multiple times Hicks says the Attorney General intervened on behalf of the consumers which included contacting Marilyn to issue refunds to frauded individuals.
January 2017 is when Hicks said the FBI contacted their office and that’s when the Attorney Generals Office started sharing information with the FBI.
“At that point, when we would get complaints, we would forward it to the FBI because, obviously, in Iowa, the Attorney General’s Office, we pursue things under civil law. Obviously the FBI has a bigger hammer using federal criminal law to go after to go after these fraudsters,” said Hicks.
The Sterks are currently free on bond and scheduled to appear in court in Tennessee next week.
The attorney for the Sterks, Guy Cook, released this statement to Channel 13 on the case:
Ms Sterk and her daughter and daughter in law are not only presumed innocent, but are indeed innocent of the charges.
The Sterks are themselves are[sic] victims.
They were lured by a purported computer support company of India to provide banking assistance.
The Sterks have no computer technical expertise and were not involved in selling any computer programs or services.
The charges against them are proof of nothing. They have committed no crimes.
The Sterks will enter pleas of Not Guilty on Monday, March 9, 2020 at an arraignment in federal court in Tennessee.”