Duke Energy and the local Better Business Bureau have a message to small-business owners and residents getting phone calls from people claiming to be from the utility, and demanding money in order to keep their power.
Utility scams are on the rise in the nation, and particularly the Carolinas, according to Duke Energy and the BBB of the Southern Piedmont, which held a joint news conference on Wednesday to warn consumers.
“These scammers are very active, very aggressive,” said Jared Lawrence, a Duke Power executive who works with customer services and leads the utility’s efforts on scam awareness.
“Even the most savvy businesses are being taken for thousands of dollars.”
These callers dial up consumers, warn them that their power will be turned off within the hour unless they pay up, and direct people to local retail or drugstores to buy prepaid debit cards to cover their bills. Often, “Duke Energy” shows up on the caller ID, spoofing the customer.
Since June 2015, Charlotte logged 675 reports of scammers contacting people – mainly small-business owners – for money. Scammers netted $80,257 from these calls, according to Lawrence.
He said local businesses hit included day care, restaurants, auto body shops, religious institutions and veterinarians.
Also on Wednesday, Duke Energy launched a phone and email awareness blitz to customers, warning of these tactics and offering tips to avoid being victims: Hang up the phone, call the police, and contact the utility company using the phone number on your bill to report the call. Duke Energy also stresses that it never demands immediate payment by prepaid cards for delinquent accounts, and gives customers advance notice to pay by phone, bank draft, mail or in person.
Duke Energy released a video of small-business owners recounting how they were contacted by scammers demanding money, or else their power would be cut off while handling a busy rush of customers. It includes Charlotte restaurant French Quarter, where general manager Angelo Tsepelis says, “They were pushing me to pay it...‘It’s going to be cut in an hour...your restaurant’s going to be filled with customers.’ ” Tsepelis didn’t go for it, Duke Energy said.
It all sounds like the IRS-impersonators scam that hit the Charlotte-area two years ago, where callers demanded payment by prepaid debit cards to pay off back taxes. But while law enforcement traced those calls to India, investigators believe these utility calls are based in the United States/North America region, according to Tom Bartholomy, BBB president and CEO.
With the holidays coming and the weather turning cooler, the BBB is particularly worried about a rise in these calls.
“This (scam) works because of fear,” Bartholomy said. “The fear here is, from a homeowner’s perspective, ‘I’m going to lose my power, I’m not going to have any heat, and it’s getting cold.’”