Vermont businesses are being warned of another round of phone scams by callers claiming to be from utility companies. The scammers tell you that you haven't paid your bill and give you a 1-800 number to straighten things out.
Ron Marcus, owner of Freeman Marcus Jewelers in Rutland, said one of his employees got a call like that last week, purportedly from Green Mountain Power.
Marcus said when he called the 1-800 number to find out more, it sounded almost legitimate.
“There was a menu with directions to press 1 for a power outage, press 2 for billing type thing," Marcus said, but he added that red flags went up pretty quickly.
“The gentleman on the other end of the line said that we were overdue in our payments and that they were sending a crew down to shut the power off to the store within the next half hour,” Marcus recalled.
Marcus reported the scam to authorities and called Green Mountain Power directly.
The next day he called the bogus number back — which, by the way, GMP recommends not doing — and was surprised to hear the recorded message had changed to what sounded to him like Florida Gas Power and Electric.
That got me curious so I called the number. (Again, not recommended.)
I too was directed through a computer menu of call options before I got to an actual person.
“Thank you for calling San Diego Gas and Electric. This is Brian," the voice on the other end greeted me.
I introduced myself, then asked him if he was with Florida Gas Power and Electric.
“Yes, this is San Diego Gas and Electric," he answered.
We went back and forth for a bit about which utility I was calling and which utility he worked for. He told me they were affiliated with a few companies in Florida, around Tampa.
But when I explained that I was actually calling from Vermont and had been warned my power was going to be cut off, he quickly transferred me to another department.
I was treated to some loungy, 1960s-style hold music.
The next guy I spoke to claimed to be from Green Mountain Power. I gave him a bogus phone number which he told me he couldn’t seem to find in his system.
But he was certain that a work crew was on its way to my business to cut off the power. And if I wanted to stop that from happening there was only one thing I could do: head to my nearest CVS pharmacy.
“Pharmacy," I asked. "To pay my power bill?”
“Yes," he said. "You need to go to a CVS pharmacy and send a MoneyPak gift card for $500."
He even spelled out "m-o-n-e-y-p-a-k," to make sure I understood.
"Boy, that’s a lot of cash,” I told him.
“No, you’re not sending in any money, alright?" he said. "What you’re doing is ... you're buying an item from the CVS.”
“Right, but I have to pay for that with cash,” I point out. “And then you take the cash and run, 'cause this is a pretty good scam."
He continued to try to convince me that this was the way to ensure my power stayed on, until I decided to hang up.
According to Lauren Jandl, a consumer advisor within the Vermont Attorney General’s Office, this is a very common scam. She said it specifically targets businesses when they know the business will be especially busy.
"For instance they'll call a restaurant during lunch rush, hoping the owner will opt to pay rather than risk having their power disconnected," Jandl explained.
She said that so far this year, 17 businesses have reported being targeted, including five this month alone. Last year, Jandl said, it was the most common scam to hit businesses in Vermont.
Jandl said luckily those who’ve called her office this year have not fallen for the hoax. But she advises anyone who receives this type of call to report it to the Vermont Attorney General’s Consumer Assistance Program, either at their website or by calling 800-649-2424.
In addition to reporting the call, Jandl said to contact the utility company directly, using a phone number from an official bill.
Green Mountain Power has alerted customers about such scams in the past. A warning on its website from January includes a statement from GMP's Kristin Carlson, explaining the company would "never demand immediate payment through credit cards or pre-paid cards."