More than 2,000 Southern California Edison (SCE) customers this year have been contacted by people posing as SCE employees threatening to cut service for unpaid bills. Most victims are mom and pop business owners and a good portion are entrepreneurs whose first language is not English.
It’s no wonder that when a recent utility bill scammer called a Southern California sushi chain, workers were sent scrambling in fear that their electrical service would be disrupted at its retail locations.
David Isbell, director of operations for SanSai Fresh Grill & Sushi Kitchen, said the scammers knew exactly what to say and were very sophisticated.
“They extract every bit of information they can from you and use it against you,” he said. “Our controller was the first one to really talk to ‘Luis’ after our retail location referred them to corporate.
“When the controller told them the check number of the payment we made to SCE, that number was referenced over and over by ‘Luis’ when he spoke to me. It sounded official, like he was looking us up in his system.”
Like the many other cases where scammers are trying to extract money from unsuspecting customers, Isbell was asked to make a payment via prepaid cards available at local pharmacies. When he asked if he could pay with the company credit card, he was told that was against SCE policy.
In fact, SCE takes most major credit cards for residential customers and business customers can pay by direct deposit or check.
“SCE never calls a customer to collect or demand money for past due bills,” said Marlyn Denter, SCE’s manager of Consumer Affairs. “We are not in the business of threatening our customers with the termination of service.”
Isbell ended up asking the “SCE representative” for some time and hung up. The scammer said the restaurant had until noon before someone would come out to cut off their power.
“This is all around 10 a.m. So we were all in scramble mode and we obviously needed the electric service so we’re doing our research to figure out what happened to the check,” said Isbell, who has been with SanSai for one year.
Isbell and the controller were able to quickly figure out that their last payment to SCE was posted. Any suspicions Isbell had about ‘Luis’ were confirmed when he called the scammer back.
“He said we were wrong and said that we should still go to a local grocery store and purchase a gift card to pay them,” he said. “At this point, I knew the guy was a fraud and I called his bluff.”
The scammer responded by saying that his power would be turned off at noon. Isbell egged on the imposter. “Great, fantastic, I’ll see you at noon,” he said.
Noon came and went. As expected, the restaurants didn’t lose service. Isbell was curious and ended up calling ‘Luis’ back. This time he made sure his caller ID was blocked. The person on the other end of the line didn’t identify himself as ‘Luis’ or a representative of SCE.
The individual just said, “hello,” and asked who was calling.
“I heard dogs barking in the background and I asked him, why he was being a jerk and robbing people,” said Isbell. “He just laughed at me and hung up.”
If SCE customers receive suspicious calls, report the incident immediately to local police or SCE at 800-655-4555.