When a scammer called Florida pet clinic operator Cindy Evers last year and demanded immediate payment on an overdue Duke Energy electric bill, it sounded real.
“They knew my account number and gave me a figure that I owed that’s close to what I usually pay on my electric bill,” Evers said. She paid, even though, in the back of her mind, she knew her payment wasn’t late.
“I have pets under sedation, and I’m taking care of animals. I think I just panicked, thinking they were going to shut my electricity off. I did what they told me to do.”
Evers lost $900 because the caller was a fake.
Scammers have gotten remarkably bold, and even sophisticated consumers can fall victim. Duke Energy customers are no exception.
The good news is Duke Energy’s scam alerts are getting through to customers, said Jared Lawrence, vice president of revenue services. He regularly reviews customer reports on scams reported to Duke Energy’s call centers.
About 90 percent of customers who get a call and report it say they didn’t fall for the scam.
“For a while, we were getting reports of the simple phone call that threatened to disconnect service,” he said. “But so many customers became wise to that trick that activity slowed down, at least for a while.”
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean they’ve given up; they’ve just altered their tactics. "They’re extremely sophisticated," Lawrence said. "They adapt their strategies as the public catches on, target another region for a period of time, and then return with new approaches to catch customers off guard.”
Play audio of telephone scam below
The most common traps
The “past due” scam, similar to the one in Florida, goes something like this: A customer gets a call from an 800-number that looks like a valid Duke Energy number. Widely available spoofing software allows crooks to display what appears to be a Duke Energy number on caller IDs. The caller threatens to cut off power if the customer doesn’t pay.
But here’s the give-away: The crook will demand payment via a prepaid debit card or money order. And he’ll ask for it within a specified time frame – often an hour or less.
The scammer may even quote an amount that sounds like your typical monthly bill. That way, the threat has even more credibility.
Scammers are artful social engineers, Lawrence said. They might say, “'Your bill for $237.82 on account 3786983-6570 is past due.' The account number and balance are made up, but because they sound valid, you go to your computer and pull up your online banking account and reply, 'No, my last bill was for $157.95, and I paid it on April 12.' "
They’ll pick up on that, and say, “Oh, yes. I see the amount on my screen. That payment of $157.95 was initially processed, but later rejected by your financial institution on April 21. I will need a payment today, but if you can clear up the matter with your bank afterward, we will issue a credit.”
Duke Energy will never require customers who have delinquent accounts to purchase a prepaid card or money order to avoid service disruption or disconnection, nor will they demand payment on the spot, Lawrence said.
The in-person ploy
Not all scams happen over the phone.
A favorite ruse is for a scammer to walk into a restaurant during the lunch or dinner rush and demand immediate cash payment. Worried that the power could be cut off during the busiest time of day, the restaurant owner grabs cash out of the register – and unwittingly pays off the crook.
There have been a few cases of scammers bold enough to show up at someone’s residence.
In early 2016, a brother and sister from Denver, N.C., told authorities a woman claiming to be with Duke Energy visited their home and made off with a safe containing valuables.
Some crooks arrive in a van bearing a phony but realistic-looking Duke Energy logo. They may wear official-looking uniforms and ID badges.
Some claim to be “energy auditors” who want to offer a free home inspection. Duke Energy does offer energy audits and other programs, but the company does not demand payment during those visits.
Evers hopes sharing her story will prevent others from being taken.
“I got scammed, and I’m not proud of it,” she said. “But if it stops someone else from losing money, I’m happy to do whatever it takes.”
9 ways to protect yourself
- Never share your personal information, including birthday, Social Security number or banking account information.
- Never wire money to someone you don’t know.
- Do not accept offers from anyone, including those claiming to be Duke Energy employees, to pay your bill or provide any other service for a fee.
- Don’t assume the name and number on your caller ID are legitimate. Caller IDs can be spoofed.
- Do not click links or call numbers in unexpected emails or texts – especially those asking for your account information.
- Duke Energy may call to discuss your account. Duke will provide information that only you and Duke Energy would know to validate that the call is legitimate.
- Duke Energy customers who have delinquent accounts receive multiple notifications for several weeks, never a single notification one hour before disconnection.
- Duke Energy never requires customers to purchase a prepaid debit card or money order to avoid disconnection.
- If you receive a call that sounds like it may be a scam, or if you believe the call is a scam, hang up, call the police and then Duke Energy.
More information: https://www.duke-energy.com/customer-service/report-fraud-and-scams