At about 6 p.m. on Monday, Simon Canasi, owner of World of Beer in Columbia’s Vista, received a call from someone identifying himself as an SCE&G employee, saying that because of a “glitch,” his $2,700 check for his November payment was being returned.
The caller, who said his name was Jacob, demanded that he pay a minimum of $988 immediately – or his power would be turned off in one hour. Canasi, who runs five World of Beer franchises in four states, had a heated argument with the caller, but eventually did as instructed: He purchased a prepaid debit card from a nearby CVS, and called in the card’s number.
“It was a scam,” Canasi said Wednesday from his Tampa, Fla., office. “They got me.”
Phone scams always increase during the holidays, according to the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs. But this year, con artists are using a new way to bilk people over the phone – asking for immediate payment for things like utility bills or IRS payments and instructing victims to use untraceable prepaid debit cards or wire transfers.
And the technique is being applied to a wide range of scams, including calls from fake IRS agents and computer technicians and bogus sweepstakes wins and police warrants.
While utility scams often target beleaguered small business owners, threatening to cut power during their busiest times, they also bilk individuals.
“It ramps up during the cold months,” said consumer affairs spokeswoman Juliana Harris. “No one wants their heat to go off.”
In addition to faking their identity, the callers also can spoof the victim’s caller ID, making the call appear as though it is coming from a legitimate number. In Canasi’s case, the caller also provided him with a customer service number, which led to an answering machine on which a fake SCE&G customer service representative asked victims to leave a message.
That number was (803) 900-8485 and was still active when The State called Wednesday afternoon.
“Never call the number they give you,” Harris said. “If you aren’t comfortable, hang up and call the company directly. Look on the back of your bill or use an independent source.”
The problem has become so widespread, that all of the state’s utility companies and the attorney general last month joined for a press conference to make the public more aware.
“It not just an SCE&G thing,” said Eric Boomhower, the utility’s spokesman. “This is affecting utility companies all across the nation.”
He noted that legitimate account representatives would never direct a person to purchase a prepaid card.
“We would not prescribe a payment form,” he said.
In another similar scam that is circulating, the caller identifies himself or herself as an IRS agent, and threatens to come to the victims’ houses and arrest them if they don’t pay a fine. Or, they say the victim has a refund coming but has to pay a phony charge to get it.
In November, 84 IRS scams in S.C. were reported to the consumer affairs department, compared with only three utility scams.
Other scams reported to the department include:
• Fake court/police department calls. The caller claims to have “court documents” for the victim – sometimes for missing jury duty – and says a warrant will be issued if a fine is not paid. Most of the reports so far have been for callers posing as Richland County or Spartanburg County officers.
• Computer/tech scams. Callers can get names and other basic information from public directories. Then they try to enroll victims in a worthless computer maintenance or warranty program, bill them for phony services that they could get for free and steal sensitive data like user names and passwords. Or they ask victims to enter credit card numbers and other personal information. Ten were reported in the state last month.
• Sweepstakes. Scam artists will say victims have won a foreign country’s lottery that they entered by shopping in a well-known big box store. They then ask victims to wire or send money in order to receive the prize. There were 33 reported in S.C. in November.
Most often, the scammers demand prepaid cards or wire transfers.
“If you give them the number (on the card), the money will be gone before you know it and it’s virtually untraceable,” Harris said. “It’s like cash.”