CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Telephone scammers who attempt to force residential electric customers to pay alleged past-due bills to avoid losing their service are also targeting area small businesses, SCE&G officials say.
Several small business customers say they received phone calls from someone claiming to work for the utility. The callers say the customer has an outstanding balance on their account that must be paid immediately or else their service will be disconnected.
In each case, SCE&G says the caller demands the customer purchase a prepaid debit card and instructs the customer to call back with the numbers on the card. Once the scammer has those numbers, he can take the money -- sometimes hundreds of dollars -- and never be heard from again.
Often, the scammer targets small businesses like restaurants whose owners may feel a bigger sense of urgency because they cannot afford to close. The scammers may suggest a specific local store where the prepaid debit cards may be purchased.
They also often use Caller ID "spoofing," which involves technology that electronically masks the caller's real telephone number, sometimes substituting an official-looking number for the utility itself.
"Utilities, including SCE&G, never ask customers to purchase payment cards for bill payment purposes," SCE&G President Keller Kissam said in a statement in November. "If you ever doubt the legitimacy of a caller, hang up and immediately call your utility to verify, as well as your local law enforcement agency."
The South Carolina Department of Consumer Affairs says scammers choose prepaid cards as the payment method because the cards are untraceable. Card users are not required to present a photo ID to spend the money on the cards.
"This should be a huge red flag," Carri Gruber-Lybarker, administrator of the department, said in a statement.
Utilities and the state's Department of Consumer Affairs urge both residential and business customers to keep these important tips in mind:
- Utilities will not ask customers to pay a bill with a prepaid card; if someone asks for payment in this manner, hang up immediately.
- Never give out or confirm account numbers, account balances, Social Security numbers or passwords in response to an incoming call.
- If you have any doubt about the legitimacy of a caller, hang up immediately and call your utility's customer service center number listed on your latest bill.
- If you suspect or experience a scam, notify your local law enforcement immediately.
If you have questions about your account, contact your utility:
- SCE&G: (800) 251-7234
- Duke Energy: (800) 777-9898
- Santee Cooper: (843) 347-3399 in Horry or Georgetown Counties; (843) 761-8000 in Berkeley County
- SC Electric Cooperatives: (803) 922-1594
You may also report scams to the Department of Consumer Affairs at (800) 922-1594.