Scam targeting electric customers

By Keith Strange

January 28, 2014

Officials with two of the area’s electric providers are warning county residents to be on the lookout for a scam that could cost them hundreds of dollars and perhaps put their personal information in the wrong hands.

According to Erica Johnson, public information specialist for the Surry-Yadkin Electric Membership Corp., thieves posing as cooperative employees are trying to steal customers’ money and personal information.

“The scammers are calling our members and telling them that their electricity will be disconnected unless they send payment immediately,” Johnson said.

Some of the victims are being instructed to make their payments by calling an 800 number that Johnson says is “in no way associated with our company.”

Members have also reported that the scammers have instructed them to purchase pre-paid credit cards and either send the money to a predetermined address or provide the information from the card over the phone.

The scam initially targeted primarily Hispanic customers, Johnson said.

“What has happened is since last fall we began receiving lots of calls from our Hispanic customers where they have been targeted,” she said. “I’d say we’ve had 10-15 reports in total, but in the past week or so we’ve started receiving calls from English-speaking customers telling us they have been targeted.”

Like the other cases, the callers are telling customers that they want the money right away or their power will be disconnected.

Johnson said the issue is not confined to local customers.

“This has been going on for about a year and is a nationwide problem,” she said. “All our 27,000 customers are potential targets, so we want to get the word out and make sure they know we’d never ask them to instantly pay by phone.”

It is a problem that is also affecting customers of Duke Energy.

“This is a nationwide scam,” agreed Kristina Hill, a spokesperson for Duke Energy. “It’s not only impacting our customers, but providers across the country are being affected.”

Hill said Duke Energy has tried to inform their customers on how to avoid being a victim of the scam.

“It’s important for customers to listen for two red flags (during the call),” she said. “First, if they’re threatening immediate disconnection and second if they’re seeking payment through a pre-paid card. In reality, we would never ask customers to purchase a pre-paid card to avoid disconnection.”

Sheriff Graham Atkinson said the scam is similar to those he’s seen in the past.

“It’s another version of what we’ve been seeing more and more,” he said. “We’re getting lots of reports of people receiving phone calls demanding money. Most of the time if the money is not sent there is a threat of action. Sometimes it involves electric bills, but it can also involve things like credit cards.”

The problem can get bigger if customers cave in and send money, Atkinson said.

“If people do give them their (card) numbers or send them money, it often bounces immediately oversees to one of the Third World countries. Once it’s gone, they have your personal information and we often have no recourse to recover the money.”

The best thing for customers, Atkinson said, is to be skeptical.

“If they give you a number to call back, don’t take it as legitimate,” he warned. “Look at a bill or other verifiable source and contact them directly. Don’t give money over the phone for any reason unless you’re absolutely sure what you’re doing and why.”

Johnson agreed.

“Our employees will never contact you to obtain account or personal information,” she said.

Keith Strange can be reached at 336-719-1929 or via Twitter at @strangereporter