The Cleveland Better Business Bureau is advising members and local businesses in Cuyahoga, Lake, Lorain, Geauga, and Ashtabula counties to hang up on callers claiming to be from The Illuminating Company or other utility who demand an immediate payment to avoid having electricity shut off.
Police departments from Westlake and Bay Village to Solon have been receiving reports of callers saying the electricity would be shut off if the owners didn't make an immediate payment using a Green Dot Moneypak card.
FirstEnergy Corp. utility officials are also warning customers about a scam involving a telephone caller posing as an electric utility company employee threatening to shut off power unless an immediate payment is made using a prepaid debit card such as a Green Dot card.
These prepaid cards are available at convenience stores and drugstores and can be used by consumers to pay bills or add money to online accounts, according to FirstEnergy officials.
Green Dot cards are not officially sanctioned as a bill payment method, according to FirstEnergy officials.
"Customers should know that if they get a call from someone demanding payment of their electric bill by using a Green Dot card, they are being scammed and should report the crime to local authorities," said Ronald Green, vice president of customer service for FirstEnergy. "While we may phone a customer whose bill is in arrears in order to remind them that a payment is due, we would explain how a payment can be made using established payment options."
The Cleveland Better Business Bureau posted one incident on its website as an example and Solon police also reported at least one incident.
According to the BBB, Cindy Sears, owner of #1 Express Carwash & Detail Center in Westlake, told BBB her business received a call from William Gonzalez, who claimed to be with the "shut down department" of the Illuminating Company.
Gonzalez told Sears that her power would be shut off at 12:30 that day unless she made a payment immediately. He claimed her recent check to the utility was being returned because it wasn't enough to cover the amount owed.
She was instructed to pay $1,850.33 using a Green Dot MoneyPak card. Sears later confirmed with The Illuminating Company that this call did not come from them and that her account was current.
The BBB says this scam is being reported not only in the Cleveland area, but other states as well.
The callers are described as having heavy accents and use phone numbers with local area codes. Scammers frequently try to install a sense of panic in victims in attempts to get quick cash. They usually request payment by wire transfer, credit card, or -- most recently -- Green Dot Money Pak cards.
The BBB says to do your research. If you receive a call claiming to be from your utility company and feel pressured for immediate payment or personal information, hang up the phone and call the customer service number on your utility bill.
Solon police say that the owner of a local business reported Jan. 31 he had been contacted by someone who claimed to be representing The Illuminating Co., informing him he owed $957 on his electric bill and was in danger of having his power shut off.
He was further instructed to pay the money in Green Dot MoneyPaks, which he purchased at CVS. He then called the "collector" back, gave him the Green Dot numbers and received a "confirmation number."
He told the person on the phone he thought he had paid his bill earlier and was told the payment had never been received.
Solon police say he became suspicious and asked to speak to a manager, who gave him a business address in Lorain, although a similar unsuccessful scam attempt recently in Solon was traced back to the Dominican Republic, which may prompt a federal investigation.
The owner also called The Illuminating Co., where he was told it was a hoax.
Bay Village police say the owner of a Bay Square restaurant reported they received a call from a man on Feb. 12 who identified himself as an employee of the Illuminating Company.
The caller indicated the restaurant had not paid the electric bill and the power would be turned off if the bill was not paid immediately.
The restaurant owner had made online payment earlier in the week, but was not sure that it went through, so she purchased Green Dot Moneypak cards as directed as payment and provided the numbers to the caller.
When she later checked on her payment, she discovered her original payment had gone through and she had been scammed, police said.