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Winter Park / Maitland Observer Wednesday, Mar. 26, 2014 4 years ago

Utility scammers target Winter Park customers

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Scammers pose as city staffers
by: Tim Freed Associate Editor

The latest scam facing Winter Park residents might trick them into opening their wallets to keep their utilities running – a ploy by callers claiming to be city employees.

Reports have poured in over the past three months of callers telling residents to either pay up or lose their electricity.

The imitators try to convince residents to avoid disconnection by purchasing prepaid debit cards, specifically Green Dot MoneyPak cards found at convenience stores, said Suzy Streed, customer accounts supervisor for Winter Park’s Electric Utility Department.

Customers are told to call back after buying the card and provide the receipt number and PIN number, giving the swindlers access to the money.

“Our customers are calling in very upset because they’ve been told that their electric service would be disconnected within an hour,” Streed said.

But she said that so far, few have taken the bait.

“I don’t know of anyone who actually purchased the card to make the payment.”

Streed said the majority of the customers who received the mysterious calls had zero balance due to the city. Residents actually falling behind on a payment would get a notice of disconnection with a bill in the mail weeks in advance, along with several automated phone messages, she said.

Winter Park Assistant Director of Communications Craig O’Neil said the city has received at least 30 calls from residents regarding suspected utility fraud since January.

“It is my understanding that other cities in Central Florida are experiencing the same thing,” O’Neil said.

The Orlando Utilities Commission released an alert in January warning residents of the fraudulent callers, confirming that their customers had been targeted and asked to pay with the Green Dot MoneyPak cards.

A similar notice came last year from Duke Energy, one of the largest electric power holding companies in the country and a provider of electricity to customers throughout Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Streed said the calls in Winter Park come in clusters toward the end of each month, focusing on a specific street and dialing random phone numbers from the service listing. One day saw a string of calls to businesses owners along Park Avenue, while another day only had calls made specifically to homes along Aloma Avenue, she said.

“My thought is they’re going to various areas to keep it fresh,” Streed said. “Like if OUC is making an announcement in this area, they might move to another area.”

“They want to hit as many people in one day as they can before it gets out that this is going on.”

Similar utility scams using the Green Dot MoneyPak cards have emerged across the country. Cities throughout California, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Oregon all have confirmed cases of the attempted fraud within the past two years, according to notices and emails from local municipalities, attorney generals and police.

But fake electricity bills aren’t the only scam afoot in the states. According to the Better Business Bureau, a boost in the housing market in 2013 also meant an uptick in housing rental scams in states across the country.

Cases start with residents stumbling upon an unbelievable rental rate on Craigslist, paying the security deposit or the first month’s rent, and later realizing the ad was only a copy of an actual listing.

Other scams reported to the BBB, such as the nefarious “ransomware,” take a more tech-savvy approach. Booby-trapped links and attachments sent via email shut off users from accessing their computer systems, displaying messages instead that demand a sum of money.

Winter Park sent out a notice last week warning residents not to trust or provide information to callers threatening to turn off their utilities. City staff will continue informing customers in an effort to protect them, said Clarissa Howard, Winter Park’s Director of Communications.

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