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Heads up, Tampa Bay: Scammers pose as utilities and threaten to cut your power

Pretending to be representatives of Tampa Electric Co. and Duke Energy, scammers made thousands of attempts to get people to pay up fast and got away with thousands of dollars.
Customers of both Duke Energy and Tampa Electric Co. have gotten calls from scammers.
Customers of both Duke Energy and Tampa Electric Co. have gotten calls from scammers.
Published Nov. 18, 2020

St. Petersburg retiree Joanne Wray got a rather alarming phone call in July.

The man said he was from Duke Energy. He said because she hadn’t paid her $384.99 electric bill, a truck was on its way to cut off her power.

“I said, ‘What in the world are you talking about?’" Wray said. "'As soon as my bill comes in, I pay it.'”

The man apologized, saying maybe they didn’t receive her check. (“He was sweet as apple pie,” Wray said.) She gave him her credit card number to get it taken care of, but then pulled out her bank statement. The check she had written to Duke Energy had indeed gone through.

“I said, ‘Doggone you, you’re a scammer,'” she said.

Florida residents, businesses, bars, restaurants and even a Catholic church have found themselves in the sights of scammers posing as local power companies. Pay this bill immediately, the caller warns, or your power will be cut off, and fast.

And sometimes, the fear of losing electricity works.

So far this year, about 2,400 Tampa Electric Co. customers reported scam attempts. About 100 of them paid scammers a total of about $58,000.

Across Florida, approximately 4,540 Duke Energy customers made similar reports, and 179 of them lost about $95,000.

The Better Business Bureau reports the median loss in utility scams last year was $506.

Scammers have ramped up calls, texts, emails and even in-person visits during the coronavirus crisis to convince utility customers they owe, according to the Better Business Bureau of West Florida. The callers threaten to cut off electric or gas service, often in less than an hour. Customers might be asked to quickly buy a prepaid debit card or to pay via a payment app or a money wire.

Scammers have been known to rig caller ID so the call appears to be coming from a utility, or to have a call-back number that sounds like the utility’s Interactive Voice Response system.

Some tips from experts to avoid getting utility scammed:

  • If you’re suspicious about a call, hang up and call the utility’s number on its website or on your bill.
  • Know that utilities won’t ask someone with a delinquent account to pay with a prepaid card to keep from getting the power cut off.
  • Customers with delinquent accounts will get advance notice of disconnection, not one notification an hour before.
  • If someone tries to scam you, you can report it to the Better Business Bureau Scam Tracker at bbb.org/scamtracker.

The problem is prolific enough to get its own dubious day: Wednesday is Utility Scam Awareness Day. Both Duke Energy and Tampa Electric are members of a Utilities United Against Scams group nationwide and in Canada.

As for Wray, she managed to avoid an unpleasant ending to her scam story. She hung up on the man who claimed he was from Duke and immediately called her credit card company.

They cancelled her card and overnighted her a new one.

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