by Paul Bowers
Con artists have been calling Charleston-area small business owners in recent months posing as employees of South Carolina Electric & Gas. The scammers often say that the customer needs to send money via a pre-paid debit card to settle an outstanding utility balance and avoid having the power turned off.
SCE&G is aware of the scam and has been warning its customers about it since June 2014. According to the company, scammers often target small businesses that cannot afford to close down, but they also have targeted residential customers. They have been known to use caller ID "spoofing," which can give the appearance that a call is coming from either a local number or even the utility's customer service hotline.
An SCE&G spokesperson says that from June 2014 to January 2015, the utility received 705 phone calls from customers reporting attempted phone scams. But by the time some scams are discovered, it's already too late.
According to a report filed with the Charleston Police Department, an employee at D.D. Peckers' Wing Shack in West Ashley received a phone call on Fri. Feb. 13 at about 3:30 p.m. from a man claiming to represent an SCE&G collections agency. The man said they were going to cut off the restaurant's service because of a past-due bill. The employee alerted restaurant owner Derek Harris, who called back the phone number that had been provided, 866-978-7079. (When the City Paper tried contacting this phone number, it had been disconnected, but numerous people have made complaints online about scam calls from the number.)
The man on the phone identified himself as "Jason" and said that Harris had 30 minutes to pay a past-due bill before his business's electricity would be disconnected. "Jason" then transferred him to a supervisor who identified himself as "Marcus Floyd." The supervisor told Harris that he could pay "a percentage of the bill," which amounted to $1,497.62, to avoid service termination. Harris says he tried to pay with his debit card at first, but the man on the phone said the transaction needed to be completed in cash due to the tardiness of the bill.
The man on the phone told Harris to purchase three $500 Reloadit prepaid debit cards from a nearby Food Lion grocery store. Harris followed the instructions and read the serial numbers on the back of the cards to the man on the phone. It was only once the transaction was complete that Harris says he "became suspicious of the transaction" and called Reloadit and the police department about the matter. Harris did not respond to a request for comment.
If you think you are the victim of a scam of this nature, SCE&G asks you to call your local law enforcement agency as well as the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs at 1-800-922-1594.
"SCE&G never asks customers to purchase payment cards from local convenience or drug stores for bill payment purposes," said Sam Dozier, SCE&G's vice president of customer service. "If you have any doubt whatsoever about the legitimacy of a caller, hang up and immediately call our Customer Service Center at 1-800-251-7234."
Another local business, the Orange Spot Coffeehouse in North Charleston, received a similar call late last year. Co-owner Julie Simuang says the call came on a Saturday afternoon from a phone number with an 803 area code. The man on the phone told her that her business owed SCE&G $595 and said her power would be cut off if she did not make the payment via a prepaid debit card within an hour.
"He just got me in a tizzy, and I felt like I didn't know what I was talking about," Simuang says.
Simuang says she called her business partner, who drove to a local SCE&G office and realized that it was closed on Saturdays. Simuang realized something was suspicious and decided not to make the payment. Eventually, she got in touch with an SCE&G representative who told her that the company would never ask for payment over the phone. Simuang logged a complaint with the utility and also with the Department of Consumer Affairs.
"I actually called back that number he gave me and said, 'Just so you know, I filed a complaint. I know that this is not real, and I'd appreciate you not doing this. Small business owners work really hard, and for you to take advantage of them is just disgusting,'" Simuang says. According to Simuang, the man on the line hung up on her.