Any business owner knows the importance of keeping the lights on and operations running smoothly. So, when a utility customer service rep calls saying you missed a payment, you better pay up quickly, right?
Some business owners are learning the dangers of trusting such calls.
Ahmed Abouelela, owner of Tina’s Pizza and Italian Restaurant in Hamilton, N.J., was duped out of $2,500 in July, when a caller claiming to be from his electric utility, PSE&G, said his bills were overdue. The caller said Abouelela could purchase pre-paid Green Dot MoneyPak cards and call back with the card numbers to catch up on his payments.
Abouelela told the Times of Trenton that he was initially suspicious of the request; however, the caller knew his PSE&G account number, his billing history and other background information about his business. Abouelela felt he better abide rather than risk his business’s power being shut off right in the middle of lunch rush. “He had all this information about my business, so I believed him,” Abouelela told the Times. “The shut-off notice was current. The balance due was current. He couldn’t get hold of my bill from my trash can because I had it in my hand.”
Abouelela isn’t the only small-business owner to falling prey to such con. The North Carolina Attorney General’s Office issued a news alert this week warning business owners of utility billing scams. The fraudsters use special technology to fake their phone number so that the name of the business’s utility company appears on caller ID. The caller typically says the business is behind on its utility payments and threatens to shut off power immediately if bills aren’t paid. They typically ask the business to buy pre-paid credit cards and call them back with the card number and PIN.
Duke Energy customers in North Carolina have lost as much as $900 to this scam, the news release said.
Several other utilities and local governments around the U.S. have warned businesses and individuals of similar utility scams in recent days.
In general, business owners need to be leery of people who call over the phone and demand payment for overdue bills of any kind. Many scammers see small-business owners as easy targets because they often have the cash to quickly pay up. They’re also vulnerable because they are desperate to keep their business running and don’t want to risk something like their power being shut off or their accounts being suspended.
If you think you've been a target of a potential scam, call your local police or prosecutor’s office. Provide as many details as you can to the authorities trying to track down the scam artists.
You can also learn more about recent scams at Fraud.org, a site run by the National Consumers League. Though the site is for consumers, many of the same scams are also targeted at business owners.
Read more about scams.