As a longtime business owner and former senior corporate executive, Harvey Durand has business smarts. But it was his street smarts that were put into good use recently when he managed to avoid becoming the victim of a utility scam.
Durand was at his business office at The Coffee & Tea Exchange when a man named “Luis” called posing as a Southern California Edison (SCE) employee and demanded immediate payment of a late bill or his power would be shut off.
“This guy ‘Luis’ was really good,” said Durand, whose tea shops are tucked away in the San Bernardino Mountain communities of Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear. “He never broke away from his story and sounded like he knew what he was talking about. I pushed on him real hard saying this wasn’t SCE’s procedures and that I didn’t understand what they’re doing. He never raised his voice and just said, ‘We’re sorry, sir, this is our new policy.’”
Imposters have been calling SCE customers telling them they must make immediate payment on past due bills or have their electric service disconnected. The scam artists are also demanding that payment be made through a prepaid cash card. Other forms of fraud involve customers being asked to purchase prepaid debit cards.
But Durand says he used “Luis”’ demands and his own remote mountain location to his advantage.
“I’m in Lake Arrowhead and there is a Rite Aid 10 minutes away, but I played the game,” he said. “I said, ‘Hey, I’m up in the mountains and there is no Rite Aid or CVS pharmacy near me so I have to go to Redlands and that will take two hours before I can do anything.’ And so ‘Luis’ said that he would put a hold on my bill for two hours.”
Durand immediately had his wife call SCE to report the fraud. A customer service representative confirmed that the Durands were up to date on their bill and that they were dealing with someone who was not an SCE employee.
“A little over two hours pass and the same ‘Luis’ calls me again,” said Durand. “He says, ‘Hey, you said you were going to get back to us in two hours and we haven’t heard back from you.’ And I said you’re not going to hear from me again because you’re a fraud. He said, ‘no we’re not and we’re going to disconnect your power.’”
Durand said, “You just go right ahead,” and hung up the phone. His shops never lost power.
In 2013, SCE customers have reported about 1,200 instances of phone scams. About 160 residential and commercial customers have been victimized by some form of bill scam with the incidents costing them an average of $800 to $1,000.
“The way Mr. Durand handled the situation is exactly what we ask customers to do when they receive a suspicious call,” said Art Chico, an investigator in SCE’s Corporate Security department. “A tip for customers, which should make it easy to identify the impostor callers, is that impostors are primarily using a combination of standard area code numbers that are not 1-800 toll-free numbers.”
If customers receive suspicious calls like Durand received, they should report the incident immediately to local police or SCE at 800-655-4555.
“You’re not 100 percent sure (if the call was fraudulent), but I was pretty sure,” said Durand. “I could see why a lot of customers got sucked into these schemes.”