DES MOINES, Iowa — Scams are getting better and better, and they are on the rise.  Last year, the FTC reported nearly $550 million were lost to so-called Romance Scams and that’s only what was reported.  A lot of victims don’t want to come forward.

One woman in Pleasant Hill didn’t shy away from telling her story about losing thousands of dollars in a scam.  When we first met Lisa Olivier two and a half years ago, she’d just fallen for the Tinder Trap.  She told us she didn’t know the name of the man she met on the online dating site who just scammed her out of nearly $10,000.

“Obviously, I’m too trusting,” she said in 2019.

But with the help of a private investigator, we put a name to the face and identified John Clarke. 

“He doesn’t care about us.  He just cared about getting that money.  He wanted to trick us into getting mostly phones and other electronics he could resell it and make money,” said Olivier.

Follow the money and you’ll see Clarke has racked up charges across the state.

In 2019, Clarke was charged with second-degree theft in Montgomery County.  A woman says he scammed her out of more than $3,000.  He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and agreed to repay her.  As of today, she tells us he hasn’t paid a dime.

Last November in Black Hawk County, Clarke pleaded guilty to felony theft as a habitual offender.  He admitted to charging three iPhones worth $3,300 to a woman’s Verizon account without her permission.
Despite his lengthy criminal record, the plea deal included a suspended prison sentence.  All he got was two to five years probation.

Right now, in Linn County, court records show Clarke is accused of giving a woman a phony name and taking off with an iPhone and Playstation.  She says he stuck her with a $1,633 bill.  It wasn’t until she saw our story in 2019 that she learned his real identity.

Here in Polk County, Clarke is facing yet another second-degree theft charge.  He’s accused of lying to get access to a woman’s Verizon account and getting away with more than $1,700.

At a pre-trial conference, Clarke told the court he tested positive for Covid and appeared by phone.

“If he were to plead guilty as charged, I would agree that he could have probation after a PSI,” said Assistant Polk County Attorney Jaki Livingston.

“I have no problem with that. I’m currently on probation for a charge that happened well before these charges were filed and my probation officer that I currently have now is fully aware of the situation,” explained Clarke.

So is Al Perales.

“My belief is that if more people come through, he will have to in time pay the penalty for his actions,” said Perales.

He’s an investigator in the Consumer Protection Division of the Iowa Attorney General’s Office.  Perales says 20 women have called the AG’s office claiming they fell victim to Clarke’s romance or imposter scam.

“Outside looking in, many would say that’s a relationship gone bad.  They should have known better, but I’m a full believer that when you start looking into it, when you start looking at the inner workings, putting the pieces of the puzzle together, you find this was a cold-hearted scheme to deceive and to take advantage of someone financially and emotionally,” he explained.

Not all the cases have resulted in criminal charges. 

“He found a little loophole.  He thought it was a perfect loophole,” said Oliver.

When she says police wouldn’t touch her case, she ended up filing a civil small claims case.  Last month, Olivier won.  After failing to appear in court, a Polk County judge ordered Clarke to pay her $6,500 plus interest.  But collecting that money won’t be easy. She filed the paperwork to garnish Clarke’s wages only to find out that he isn’t working.

“It’s been 2.5 years for me that this is all started.  So just seeing any of that money is going to be a blessing,” said Olivier.

The AG’s office says you can help protect yourself from falling for a scam by remembering the acronym TIP.  Every scam will include a THREAT to raise your emotions, IMMEDIACY to act or else, and most importantly, a PAYMENT.

If you believe you are involved in a romance scam, or if you know someone who may be, contact the Iowa Attorney General’s Office immediately. To file a complaint, go www.iowaattorneygeneral.gov/for-consumers/file-a-consumer-complaint or call 515-281-5926 (in the Des Moines area) or 888-777-4590 (outside the metro area).