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Electric bill scam targets local PECO customers

An electric bill scam that just won’t die is claiming more and more victims, some of whom have been hit up for big dollars. One mark who thought he was paying an overdue bill recently lost $6,000 in a scheme PECO has been tracking for years. This is how it works:

Con artists call PECO customers and threaten to cut off their electric service if they don’t immediately pay overdue bills, said Ben Armstrong, a PECO spokesman. Customers ask the callers how they could possibly pay a bill in the 40 minutes or so before they’re told their power will be shut down, and they’re instructed to buy debit cards for the amounts they’re told they owe.

They are given phone numbers to call and are told to read off the debit cards’ front and back numbers to whoever answers. Needless to say, no PECO accounts are paid when the cards’ values are drained.

Most people don’t fall for this scheme, Armstrong said last week, but enough do that the con men just won’t stop.

Three hundred eighty-two PECO customers have been contacted by grifters working this scam between Oct. 1, 2014, and Jan. 6, 2015, Armstrong said. Forty-four of those fell for the con.

“Most of the successful scam attempts are for a few hundred dollars,” Armstrong said, “but we have unfortunately have had some customers taken for upwards of $3,000, $4,000, even $6,000.”

Since PECO started compiling data on this con in 2011, the utility knows of 329 customers from all over its Philadelphia and suburban service areas who collectively have lost more than $340,000, Armstrong said.

When the utility first became aware of this scheme, it was being perpetrated with a Hispanic accent. The victims were most often Latino or had surnames that, at least, seemed Spanish. The callers would threaten customers in Spanish or ask to speak to someone who spoke Spanish, but otherwise, the workings of the scheme would be exactly as described above.

Most of the initial victims were in Chester County.

Since 2012–13, the con artists have broadened their focus and are looking for marks in the city and its suburbs. Both residential and business customers are being targeted.

Although PECO has been working with law enforcement agencies to try to curb the scheme, the con men might be just about untouchable because they are making their calls from overseas. They’ll call using phone numbers with area codes from all over the country, but they’ve been known to use “267,” one of Greater Philadelphia’s codes.

Anyone who claims to be representing PECO over the phone should be able to tell a customer the name on the account he’s talking about, the account address, the account number and the current balance.

“If the caller cannot provide this information,” Armstrong said, “it is likely the call is not coming from PECO. In this case, customers should not provide any information, and call the company at 1–800–494–4000.”

And, he cautioned, nobody should give Social Security, banking or credit card information to anyone who calls them. ••

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