SMITHFIELD — When Tim Stevens of Stevens Sausage Co. received a phone call from a man claiming to be with Duke Energy, he knew he was being scammed.
The man, speaking with a Caribbean accent, told Stevens his company was behind on its power bill. He said Stevens would need to purchase a debit card and transfer the money to him within the hour or have the sausage plant’s power cut off.
“So I said, ‘OK, send them over here,’ ” Stevens said. “I knew right quick it was a scam.”
This particular scam has hit power customers nationwide, with con artists posing as bill collectors for various power companies, said Duke Energy spokeswoman Kristina Hill.
Hill said fraudsters have been contacting customers randomly throughout Duke’s service area. They have been targeting both individual and business customers – anyone with a utility account is fair game.
She said the company has been working overtime to warn customers of the danger signs.
“You have these individuals – they demand a payment be made ... usually within an hour,” Hill said. “That’s an automatic red flag.”
Duke’s standard procedure is to send delinquent customers numerous notifications in the weeks leading up to a service disconnection, she said.
The company is used to dealing with scams, Hill said, but this one has been especially hard to stop. The scammers call on disposable phones, making them nearly impossible to find.
Many times, Hill added, the scammers call using “spoofing” techniques that change the caller ID number appearing on a person’s phone. Stevens said the call he received appeared to be coming from Durham; he traced it to a restaurant.
Hill said some scammers are even more clever – making Duke’s customer-service number appear on phones.
That makes it hard to screen the calls, Hill said. Customers will need to pick up and listen for the red flags, like demands to pay a bill immediately on a prepaid debit card.
“It’s important (customers) be aware of those and make sure they protect themselves,” Hill said.
Duke customers who receive a call they think is fraudulent should hang up and call the company’s customer-service line at 1-800-452-2777 to report the incident, Hill said. Duke Energy also urges customers to contact police.
Stevens chose to stay on the line and try to get as much information on the scam as he could. The man on the other end of the line was not happy about being called on his bluff. After Stevens told him to send the technicians over, the two of them exchanged heated insults, another sign the caller was not who he claimed to be.
“A regular power company won’t cuss you out,” Stevens said. “They’ll do everything they can to work with you.”
After receiving the call, Stevens contacted the Smithfield-Selma Chamber of Commerce. Chamber President Rick Childrey sent an email advisory to members making them aware of the scam.
Stevens, who keeps a file of the scams he comes into contact with, said this one wasn’t very sophisticated. But based on what he’s heard, it’s pretty wide-ranging. “It’s obviously been going around,” Stevens said.