Electricity scam targeting businesses

pseligson@newsobserver.comFebruary 10, 2014 

A statewide telephone scam has returned to Smithfield.

A scammer has been calling Smithfield businesses and telling them their electricity bill is past due. The caller then says if the business doesn’t pay immediately by phone, the town will shut off its electricity.

Town officials said this happened multiple times about a year ago and then stopped. But in the last two months, someone has been trying the same scam again.

Last year, the town received calls from about two dozen people who had been called by the scammers, said Jay Godwin, Smithfield’s billing and collections supervisor. He’s since gotten about a half-dozen calls in the last two months.

Godwin and Greg Siler, the town’s finance manager, said Smithfield will never call and ask for a utility payment by phone. “We just don’t do that,” Godwin said. “If they get a call saying they’re going to be disconnected, make a payment now, they need to hang up and contact us or contact the Smithfield Police Department.”

Siler added that while Smithfield does accept payments by phone, it doesn’t solicit them.

Lt. Keith Powell, public information officer for the Smithfield Police Department, said one business fell for the scam last year, though many more received calls. But police couldn’t trace the calls, Powell said, because the scammers were using technology to make the phone number change locations. “The phone was pinging different locations,” he said.

One of the Smithfield businesses called recently is The Diner on Market Street. Owner Larry Holt said he’s received two calls in the last two months.

Holt said the caller asked for the owner and then told him the electricity bill was overdue. If Holt didn’t pay over the phone immediately, then Smithfield would turn off The Diner’s electricity. “That startled me,” Holt said. “That caught me off guard.”

But then Holt asked the caller how much he owed, and the caller didn’t know. Holt hung up and then called the police and town.

ElectriCities, which advises public power towns, recently sent out a message about the scam to its member towns. Spokeswoman Rebecca Agner said ElectriCities recently received two reports of scammers now targeting residential customers rather than businesses. The scammers were using the weather as an excuse, she said, encouraging people to stay in during the cold and snow and make a payment by phone.

When the scam happened last year, it was mostly in Hendersonville and Cornelius, Agner said.

Seligson: 919-836-5768

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