SoCal residents and business owners are being warned of the resurgence of a scam targeting Southern California Electric customers.
The scheme begins with a call from someone purporting to be an SCE employee, demanding payment for a past due account. The scammer threatens and bullies the victim into believing the non-existent past due bill must be paid with a pre-paid, untraceable debit card.
“They called me around 2:30 in the afternoon,” said John, a restaurant owner who only wanted to use his first name.
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John said the caller was very persistent.
“They said we haven't paid the bill. I told them I just paid the bill already,” he said.
But he said the caller threatened to turn off his power unless he was paid right away. So, John scrambled out of his restaurant to find a pre-paid debit card - just like the man demanded.
“I (asked) them, ‘how do I pay you?’,” he said. The caller told him to go to a 7-11 to get a pre-paid card for $1,500 and call them back and give them the card number.
John lost the money, and officials say he’s not alone.
Since December 2012, SCE says more than 8000 of its customers have been targeted. Nearly 1,000 of those customers have been bilked of out thousands of dollars.
“We've had a loss of more than $250,000 in losses from Southern California Edison customers,” said SCE spokeswoman Susan Cox.
The power company said customers have become more aware of the scheme in recent months - thanks to media attention and information sent out by the company - so the scammers have stepped up their techniques and are now doubling the amount of calls.
Police believe they may be calling from an out-of-country phone bank, and may now even be double dipping and targeting existing victims again.
“After they've hit a victim with a scam they will call them back -- and say ‘your transaction didn't go through, there was a problem with the card,’” Cox said. “So they're telling them to re-send the information so they can take the money from their account sometimes a second or third time.”
Authorities said the scammers are targeting mostly ethnic businesses and catching them at rush hour, so they're distracted.
The power company said there are two sure ways to know it’s not them.
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“We don't threaten customers with service discontinuation (and) we don't accept and demand prepayment by cash,” Cox said.
The phony callers also often have a bad phone connection. Officials said the best thing to do if you suspect something is wrong is to hang up and call the number on your utility bill to confirm the details of your account.
John, the restaurant owner who lost $1,500, said he’s angry, and that he wants others to learn from what happened to him.
“I want anybody that owns a restaurant or opens a business,” he said. “Just (want) people out there know that don’t be tricked by those people”