Following an apparent five-week hibernation, telephone scam artists posing as Cleveland Utilities representatives re-emerged from their holes Wednesday and targeted at least eight more of the local utility’s business customers.
A day earlier, a similar ensnarement attempt using an almost identical ploy — but utilizing Publisher’s Clearing House as its guise — tried to lure an 81-year-old Cleveland man into its web.
The latter call ended in a decided “click” from the culprit’s end of the line when retiree Dale Rose accused his caller of being a scammer and refused to purchase a reloadable debit card — also known as MoneyPaks — on which the con artist instructed him to load $500. Once this had been done, Rose was instructed to return the call in order to claim $2.5 million in prize money and a new 2013 Mercedes.
“Somebody’s gonna get took, I guarantee you, because it sounds good, especially if you have $500 that you don’t want,” Rose told the Cleveland Daily Banner late Tuesday.
Rose said the caller identified himself as “David Moore,” although caller ID tagged him as “J.M. Kingston” and listed a phone number. The Cleveland resident said he received the phone call at his home at 2:53 p.m. and the conversation ended at 3:12 p.m.
“... It sounded like a foreign accent, maybe Jamaican,” Rose noted. “This kind of thing goes on all the time, I guess.”
While still trying to coax Rose into taking action, the voice told the elderly man he was currently in Georgetown and was prepared to personally deliver the prize money and the automobile to his front door. The caller even said he would be accompanied by four patrol cars — two from the Cleveland Police Department and two from the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office.
“He even gave me a confirmation number,” Rose cited.
Rose explained he was instructed to go to Walmart or Walgreen’s, buy the MoneyPak, load it with the sum of money, call back and provide the information needed to claim his prize — such as the card’s ID number. This would then be followed by the promise of a Bank of America check in the amount of $2.5 million and the car.
“It sure makes you believe you won a lot of money for nothing,” Rose said. “It was all very efficient. They’re good.”
Informed of a similar scheme that targeted at least three Cleveland Utilities business customers in mid-December, Rose said the ploys sounded identical.
Less than 24 hours after Rose fielded his call Tuesday, eight of CU’s business customers notified the public utility of phone calls from persons claiming to be company representatives. In each case, the caller was notifying them of an alleged unpaid utility bill. Failure to comply with the caller’s instructions — which included the purchase and loading of a MoneyPak — would result in the customer’s electric power being disconnected immediately.
It was the same scam attempted in mid-December on three of the utility’s business customers, according to Ken Webb, CU president and CEO, and Paula Wills, customer service and billing manager.
“[In each case] the customers were told they had unpaid bills and that they were going to (have their electric power) shut off immediately if they didn’t go get a ‘Green Dot’ card and call back,” Webb explained.
The “Green Dot” is a reference to the Green Dot MoneyPak, a legitimate reloadable debit card that is sold on retail floors across the country — in major department stores, pharmacies and other locations. This type of debit card is often used by consumers who don’t have a bank account, or who don’t want one. Once the MoneyPak cards have been loaded, they can be used to pay telephone, cable and credit card bills, as well as for other purposes. Some use the reloadable cards to make online purchases in order not to expose their personal account numbers to potential cyberspace hackers.
Since the scam attempts in mid-December against CU business customers, no others had been reported to the utility until Wednesday.
“Since that last [newspaper] story, things had died down,” Wills said. “But now they’ve picked up.”
Webb agreed and suggested the scammers “... have been busy.”
All eight business customers notified CU Wednesday of the phone calls and one even visited the utility’s offices in person. That customer was prepared to pay the alleged delinquent account once it had been verified, Webb and Wills pointed out.
The CU leaders stressed each customer took the correct action by contacting the utility to verify their account balances.
Webb urged others to do the same if they receive this type of call.
“If our customers get a call, if this is the subject of the call, we ask that they call us and let us verify it,” Webb said. “Our customer service representatives would never ask anyone to go buy a reloadable debit card to pay their bill.”
Wills pointed out CU does not routinely call customers anyway about overdue payments. This is done by a second notification in the mail, she said.
The wording on these reminder notices plainly states, “According to our records, we have not received a payment from you as of the date of this notice. In order to avoid an interruption of service and additional charges, please make payment at our office before the above stated disconnect date. Please note we may no longer send a service crew to collect, and service could be interrupted from our office any time after the above stated disconnect date.”
The notice adds, “If you have paid your bill this notice may have been sent before your payment was received in our office. Please disregard this notice if your bill has been paid and accept our thanks.”
In addition to the notification by mail reminders, Webb pointed to CU’s more humanitarian practices.
On Wednesday when the scam calls were made, Cleveland’s midwinter temperatures hovered in the 20s. For this reason alone, CU would not disconnect electric power to customers’ homes, he said.
“We wouldn’t cut off power today to a customer ... it’s too cold,” Webb stressed.
The CU president said he is most alarmed by the fact that utility customers who receive these scam calls are reporting their caller IDs are showing “Cleveland Utilities” by name. Webb refered to similar incidents in Georgia where public utilities are reporting the same concern — that scammer technology is now able to manipulate caller ID devices.
This is another reason he wants CU customers to notify the local utility of such scam activity.
“If you get a call, and you have a suspicion that it’s not legitimate, please call us and we will talk with you about it and we will verify if there is an issue with the account,” Webb pointed out.
The longtime utility administrator, who began his duties as president and CEO in late 2013 following the retirement of Tom Wheeler, admonished those behind this kind of criminal activity.
“It’s unfortunate,” Webb said. “It’s just not a very good comment about the world we live in. I really believe that. It’s just sad that we’ve come to this.”
Utility companies across Tennessee, and the nation, continue to report the spread of scam shenanigans.
When Cleveland Utilities issued its first telephone scam alert last month, the action followed similar alerts by major utility companies in Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville. In each of the cities, culprits were targeting utility customers. Some were commercial accounts. Others were residential.
On their websites, companies that offer MoneyPaks traditionally warn users not to share their account numbers with strangers — as would be the same type of advice given for more conventional types of payment like standard credit or debit cards. Recent news accounts of these types of scams have agreed the cards are not the problem. The issue is the scammers who have discovered a new tool for robbing consumers.
Like the scammers who devise them, scams continue to evolve.
On May 28, 2013, the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance issued a “Scam Advisory” that warned of a new scam “... that has the appearance of being legitimate but is simply another way to steal your credit card information.”
The state alert was broadcast locally by the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office.
According to the advisory, the scam targeted victims through a text message that stated, “Your credit card number 4355xx has been deactivated.” Instructions are then included to call this number, 615-301-8561, to resolve the issue. When consumers call the number, they hear a recording that states, “Hello, this is Regions Bank, please enter your 16-digit card number at this time.”
The Division of Consumer Affairs encouraged those who received this text not to respond. Instead, they were encouraged to contact the telephone number listed on the back of their credit or debit card to report the incident. Additional information about current scams and identity theft is available at www.tn.gov/consumer.