Ellen, a grocery store cashier in Southern California, keeps her eyes open for potential scam victims.
The wife of a Southern California Edison (SCE) employee, she’s all too familiar with utility phone scams. So when customers come through her line to purchase prepaid debit cards, she makes sure they’re aware of the scam and don’t become victims.
“I ask them, is this for a gift?” said Ellen, who asked that her real name not be used. “They were coming in, in a panic. They said no, that someone from Edison called and told them they had to pay their bill within an hour or they were going to turn off their electricity. That’s when I tell them there’s a phone scam and advise them to call the Edison number on their bill to be sure.”
On two occasions, she said, customers had been instructed to load between $500 and $600 on prepaid debit cards. “That’s a lot of money.”
Since April, SCE customers have lost an estimated $27,000 to phone scams, an increase from $17,000 in March. In May, there were more than 500 scam phone calls in one week, with some paying between $1,500 and $3,000.
“The best way for customers to protect themselves against utility impostors and this phone scam is to educate themselves, their employees and their friends about being aware when they receive telephone calls from individuals demanding money for payment,” said Kari Gardner, manager of SCE Consumer Affairs.
Each year thousands of people lose money to telephone scams — from a few dollars to their life savings, according to the Federal Trade Commission. And everyone is a potential target regardless of race, gender, age, education or income.
The phone scam involves impostors claiming to be with SCE threatening to disconnect customers’ electrical service unless immediate payment is made on a supposedly past-due bill. The customer is told to buy a prepaid debit card, load a specific amount of money on it, call the impostor back and provide the serial number on the back of the card.
Once the serial number is given out, the cash is gone for good.
“You should be leery of anyone who calls asking for money, especially with a prepaid cash card. Utilities are not going to call and request money over the phone,” said Hector Tamayo, a detective for the Claremont Police Department who investigates scams. “That’s the biggest red flag.”
Those most vulnerable to scams are the elderly and customers’ whose first language is not English, and small business owners who can’t afford to have their electricity turned off.
“They’re a lot more willing to send money because they’re trying to keep their businesses running,” said Tamayo.
Some customers have reported seeing a red truck with the words “Service Disconnect,” and claiming to be with SCE, parked outside their home or business. Scammers have created fake telephone lines and recordings that state: “Hello. Thank you for calling Southern California Edison’s Disconnection Department.” Other times, scammers have threatened to all the police if customers do not pay immediately.
SCE does not own or operate vehicles with ‘Service Disconnect’ signage, and does not have a Service Disconnection Department.
Customers who suspect a fraudulent call should ask for the caller’s name, as well as their department and business numbers. End the call and report the incident immediately to local police and SCE at 1-800-655-4555. And never use the same call back number provided by the caller. Instead, call the SCE phone number printed on your bill or go to the SCE website. Service representatives can assist customers in multiple languages.
If you do pay an impostor, call SCE to report the scam and provide the card number you used to pay the scammer. In addition, call your local law enforcement agency and file a police report. Keep the card so investigators can have the number on the card as evidence.
SCE customers who are having difficulty paying their utility bill may be eligible for one of several assistance programs available to qualified households.
Here are some additional tips to help you recognize a telephone bill scam:
- Never reveal personal information, including you credit card, ATM or calling card numbers (or PIN number) to anyone.
- SCE will never demand immediate payment with the threat of service disconnection.
- SCE does not accept prepaid debit cards for bill payments.
- Shred your utility bill before disposing of it in your trash. Scammers can get your account number, balance and other key information from bills.
- If someone calls and requests you leave your residence at a specific time for a utility-related cause, call the police. This could be a burglary attempt.
- Be suspicious of anyone who arrives at your house without an appointment asking to check an appliance, wiring or suggesting there may be some other electrical problem inside or outside your residence.
- SCE employees always have their employee ID badge displayed for customers to see.