7 On Your Side: Pulling the plug on power scammers

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7 On Your Side's Nina Pineda has what you need to know about a utility scam.

The owner of the New Jersey pizzeria is still frustrated and angry after getting fleeced in a utility scam that the power company says has ripped off 50 business owners, and the list is growing fast. How can you protect yourself from this scam? One victim put himself out there so others can learn from his very expensive mistake.

"You feel anger," Hamdy Mansour said. "You feel hurt. You feel stupid."

For the Franklin Township business owner, emotions are still raw weeks after he forked over nearly $5,000 to a con man masquerading as a rep from his utility company.

It happened the Friday before the Labor Day holiday weekend, when the owner of Douglass Pizzeria got a call. He says he was given a toll-free number with an automated message claiming to be PSE&G and an ultimatum: Pay hundreds now or his pizzeria would be powerless all weekend.
"That was my main concern," he said. "I had to resolve this before 5 o'clock."

The scammer made him stay on the phone, directing him to a drug store to buy money cards.

Hamdy said that when he tried to purchase almost $1,000 of prepaid Green Dot cards at Rite Aid, the clerk refused to sell them, saying it sounded like a scam. Mansour left, but he saw a CVS across the street and was told by the scammer to go there and try again.

Nina Pineda: "Did it seem odd to you, the utility rep wanted to stay on the phone with you for 2 hours?"
Mansour: "On that Friday, it felt helpful."

The utility company reiterated what employees will and will not do when contacting customers.

"We are not going to call you up and demand a particular form of payment," PSE&G VP of customer relations Greg Dunlap said. "If you feel like someone is being that aggressive and inappropriately, so contact us."
PSE&G said the spike in scam complaints is alarming since the con artists are proving to be very persuasive.

"This guy was told PSE&G would not accept cash or a credit card and would not let him go pay the bill in New Brunswick or Trenton," Dunlap said. "When we do have collections activity, we are not trying to put someone out of business. The idea is we are trying to get the account current."

He warned the phone numbers are set up to mimic theirs exactly, and when we were there, he called the scam number. It went to an automated recording, announcing Jersey Central Power and Light, a new legitimate utility it was trying to spoof. It was evidence the con men are targeting different customers.

After losing thousands, Mansour finally called out the scammers.

"I finally broke one of them down and said, 'How do you do this to people?'" he said. "He said, 'This is how we get paid' and hung up."

Customers are advised that utilities will never call threatening to shut off your power. That is done solely by mail. If you get one of these calls, check with your utility. Call the number on your bill, NOT the number given to you over the phone. And, perhaps the biggest tip off to a rip off, when a scammer asks you to wire them money or load money on a pre-paid card. There are no exceptions here, this is biggest warning sign of a scam.
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