Scam artists are a clever and persistent lot who seem to constantly find new ways to rip off people.
The latest con making the rounds in Stanislaus County involves prepaid credit cards and high-pressure demands for payment of supposedly past-due electric bills.
The Modesto Irrigation District, Turlock Irrigation District and Pacific Gas & Electric Co. are warning customers about a rash of phone calls from people impersonating their employees and threatening to shut off power.
The scammers try to convince customers to immediately pay them money to keep the electricity flowing.
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Here’s the new twist: To quickly collect their ill-gotten gains, the fraudsters insist customers buy prepaid money cards and call them with the card numbers. Once they get those numbers, they’re gone, and so is the money.
Such money transfers, unfortunately, are untraceable. Those scam calls can come from anywhere in the world because cash from prepaid cards can be accessed around the globe.
“The caller we heard about this afternoon was very aggressive and rude and put fear into our customer about what would happen if the bill wasn’t paid,” MID’s spokeswoman Melissa Williams said Thursday.
“They’ve even figured out a way to get the customer’s caller ID to display PG&E’s name,” said Brandi Ehlers, PG&E’s spokeswoman.
Apparently they’re also good at convincing customers who know they’ve paid their electric bills that somehow those payments never arrived, TID spokesman Calvin Curtin said.
“We would never ask our customers for immediate payments or their credit card numbers over the phone,” Curtin assured. “And we certainly wouldn’t require them to use untraceable prepaid money cards.”
All three electric companies stressed that before power gets shut off because of overdue payments, customers receive multiple written notices and get sufficient time to pay, as well as numerous payment options.
While elderly residents are a favorite target for many scammers, the utilities say all kinds of customers have been scammed. “Right before Christmas, we were seeing a trend where our Spanish-speaking commercial customers were being targeted,” Williams said.
Ehlers said PG&E also has been alerting its Latino customers to be on the lookout for fraud. Most recently, she said, scammers have been going after restaurant owners in Sacramento, demanding payments and threatening to shut off their power.
Scam calls during evening hours and on weekends have become common in the Turlock Irrigation District, Curtin said. Because TID never makes such after-hours calls, that’s one way to tell they’re fake.
All three utilities urge customers to call their customer service lines directly if calls about electric bills sound suspicious. They warn customers to protect themselves by never giving out their personal information, bank account numbers, credit card numbers or Social Security numbers to strangers.
Companies that sell prepaid money cards, like Green Dot MoneyPak, also warn the public to “refuse any offer that asks you to buy a MoneyPak and share the number or receipt information by email or phone.”