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Credit card theft makes Tampa Electric bill a highly charged issue

Just another evening in the Sokol kitchen. Think burned out light bulb and the aroma of taco soup.

My husband plays a message on our phone, something about Sears dot-com. I can't understand it. He can't understand it. We move on to more pressing matters, like who gets the television at 9 o'clock.

Days later, my son hands me the phone. The caller, in a nondescript accent, wants to verify that I purchased a Sears gift card for $500.

I definitely did not.

Here's where I look really stupid. I don't put the pieces together when he asks if I want to know the last four digits of the card used for this bogus purchase. Hours later it dawns on me: Somebody stole my credit card.

If you think only mouth-breathing losers use credit anymore, stop reading now.

I have so many credit cards that I don't even know which one is missing. It's past call center hours, so I obsess all night. Morning comes and I call the Sears people, whose first message is still on my machine.

I get the card number. I call the bank. They cancel the card. But my balance is way over what it should be, so we go through the litany of recent purchases.

More embarrassment. Did I spend $30 at Walgreens? A good bit more at the Wal-Mart Supercenter? Both are possible. Four dollars on some Web site I don't recognize? Well, my daughter downloads a lot of music.

I'll just have to eat those charges, I think.

Then they ask: Did you charge $400 to Tampa Electric?

Even I don't charge electricity. I decline the charge, and they promise to mail me a form.

I'm kicking myself for treating bank cards like gum wrappers. Then I wonder: What kind of person would use a stolen credit card to pay an electric bill?

Did I just turn off the power on some family made destitute by the recession?

Conversely, did I thwart a marijuana grow house, a la Mary Louise Parker in Weeds?

I call Tampa Electric, curious.

"We have seen a fairly significant increase in the occurrence of credit cards being fraudulently used to pay for someone's electric bill," spokesman Rick Morera reports.

Huh?

You mean people were using credit cards legitimately to pay their bill?

"It is becoming more and more common,'' Morera says. Judge ye not … But the Tampa Electric bill? How sad!

So the utility is seeing an uptick in both debt and fraud.

The thieves might have had the card a good bit longer had they kept using it for smaller store purchases.

"In a lot of cases, white-collar crime happens when people are not paying close attention, and it goes undiscovered,'' says Morera, drawing on his experience with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Odds are pretty good that by the time Tampa Electric takes action, whoever tried to use the card will be long gone, he says.

As to the question of what will happen to the poor family (or grow house), Morera says Tampa Electric will most certainly turn off the lights.

(Sad music here.)

Days later, I stop by my house at lunchtime to find the power is out.

I call Tampa Electric (not Morera, but the regular customer service number) as I scan my checkbook for payment records and my purse for envelopes.

We go through the usual dance you do when a tree limb snaps or somebody gets it in his head to make random repairs while the world is working.

Sheer mortification that I might have had my power turned off is a now far more potent force than any compassion for that hypothetically destitute family.

Yes, I'm happy to learn that a) My payment is not due for another week, and b) Some repairman accidentally cut the line.

Marlene Sokol, who covers suburban issues, can be reached at (813) 269-5307 or sokol@sptimes.com.

Credit card theft makes Tampa Electric bill a highly charged issue 02/19/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 19, 2009 3:30am]

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