Rancho Cucamonga resident Gordon Broney has an aptitude for business. He sells and rents cars, owns a vending company and operates two water stores.
But, Broney said recently, “I wasn’t smart this week. I can’t believe I fell for this.”
Broney on Monday, Nov. 23, became one of the latest victims of a scam targeting customers of Southern California Edison. Telephone callers pretending to be employees of the electricity utility have this year stolen almost $300,000 from 433 customers by threatening to shut off their power over unpaid bills unless immediate payment is made via reloadable debit cards, said Jill Anderson, SCE’s senior vice president of customer service.
A victim purchases debit cards at a convenience store, and the money is drained from the cards when the victim reads the serial number on the back to the scammer. The money is gone forever and the call is almost impossible to trace.
SCE, however, never phones out of the blue to threaten shutoff and does not accept debit cards or gift cards as payment, Anderson said. As it is, SCE residential and business disconnections for non-payment have been suspended through at least April 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The fact that our customers are falling victim to these scammers is really infuriating,” Anderson said. “People are taking advantage of customers, especially in this time of global crisis when people are struggling to make ends meet.”
SCE has received thousands of complaints about the scam and recently released a list of cities in its coverage area from which the most customers have inquired about the mysterious calls this year. Fontana heads the top-10 list with 425 complaints, followed by Long Beach, Hemet, Ontario, Irvine, Santa Ana, San Bernardino, Huntington Beach, Moreno Valley and Whittier.
The scammers tend to target older customers, small businesses where the take can be higher and people for whom English is not their first language, Anderson said. The average loss is $700. The highest has been $16,000, she said.
SCE has worked with law enforcement to shut down some of the phone numbers, but Anderson acknowledged that it seems to only slow down the scammers, who quickly register new phone numbers.
Broney, 68, shared his story in the hope that others will learn from his $1,500 loss.
He received a call Monday from someone claiming to be from SCE who said that Broney had ignored letters about a new meter he was supposed to receive. Crews were coming out to install the meter but that he had to pay a $500 deposit that would be returned in 30 days — but if he didn’t pay, power would be cut.
Broney said he pays his bills as soon as they arrive, so he sensed something was amiss. Nevertheless, he followed the scammer’s instructions “Because my electricity was going to be shut off in two hours, and I can’t have that happen. If I had more time, I would have thought about that a little more.”
The SCE scam is a version of a common ruse that relies on such fear to disengage a person’s BS detector. For instance, someone claiming to be from the IRS or law enforcement will state there is a warrant out for a person’s arrest for unpaid taxes or missing jury duty, and only by immediately paying a “fine,” will the warrant go away.
Others have been fooled by the so-called grandparent scam, in which a sobbing caller claiming to be a grandchild says he or she has been in a traffic collision or has been arrested and needs money wired to a location in order to stay out of jail.
Broney went to a convenience store and loaded a debit card with $500 as the scammer remained on the phone. Broney read the serial number to the scammer and felt relieved that the electricity would stay on.
The scammers were able to reel in Broney again. They called and said they needed $1,000 each for meters for two businesses. Broney bought two more $500 debit cards and again read off the serial numbers.
Then the scammers called again and said he still needed to pay for a meter for the second store.
“Then I called Edison just to verify it and they told me that it was a scam,” Broney said.
Broney then called police. An officer phoned the number that Broney had given him, but the scammers hung up.
“I can’t believe they get away with this. I wish there was a way to trace those phone numbers,” he said.
Anderson said one reason that customers get fooled is that they are unfamiliar with SCE’s collection procedures for overdue bills.
Usually, a customer will receive an initial letter, followed by a second that lays out the timeline for disconnection. SCE offers payment plans and accepts payments by automatic bank withdrawal, check and by providing banking information over the phone.
“Always the customers will receive multiple notices,” Anderson said.
Customers with questions about their bills can call 800-655-4555 and report potential fraud attempts by emailing SCE at email@example.com or by completing SCE’s online fraud form.
Broney’s advice to people receiving calls demanding money is simple:
“Verify it first,” he said.
SENSING A SCAM
Here are the top 10 cities for inquiries by Southern California Edison customers in 2020 about possible scam phone calls. Not all these customers fell victim to them:
Source: Orange County Register