Area business targeted second time for elaborate utility scam
By Peggy Kelly
Santa Paula News
Published: July 24, 2013
An elaborate scam involving an overdue electric bill, the threat of immediate cutoff, and payment via courier didn’t work on an area woman who realized her family’s restaurant was being targeted for theft - for the second time this year.
Such scams, according to a Southern California Edison representative, have been epidemic this year using various utility companies as fronts to pry money from unsuspecting business owners. Danielle Diaz, whose family has owned Familia Diaz since 1936, answered the phone the second time to hear the South 10th Street restaurant was behind on its bill.
But Danielle was prepared: in February her father, Dan Diaz, beset by the death of his mother and family matriarch Celia and facing a full house of reservations for Valentine’s Day, found himself on the phone with the scam artist who said if Diaz did not pay an overdue SCE bill immediately the restaurant’s electrical power would be shut off.
“I was juggling 10 things at the same time. It was a perfect storm thing,” a swarm of circumstances that Dan said even included his grabbing and checking the wrong SCE bill so, “I thought they were right... all I had to do was go to the computer and check the account but I didn’t,” instead jotting down the information he was given to pay the approximately $1,000 overdue bill including the fact that after he made the purchase he was to contact the woman who would dispatch the courier whose name the prepaid cash card was issued to for pickup.
“Before Valentine’s Day with all those reservations we can’t have the power turned off, I was in a panic mod” when Dan said he set out to purchase a particular money order or money card, he can’t recall which. But local outlets were closed, so Dan drove to a Saticoy liquor store and once there, “The clerk looked at me and said it’s a scam... I called the number I was given and reconfirmed the amount I was supposed to purchase,” and then Dan said the clerk also called.
“He said he was a police detective,” and that was about all the clerk said before the woman hung up. Said Dan, “That liquor store saved me $1,000... I felt embarrassed and mad at myself, but it was perfect timing for the scammer and the wrong time for me.”
Dan warned his family about what had almost happened, “so when they called Danielle on Monday she knew right away it was a scam.”
“Because we went through it once before I just knew this was not right,” but Danielle said she still double-checked the restaurant’s records even though woman caller told her that power would be shut off in one hour. Even if Danielle had not already been alerted to the scam, the woman on the telephone would have raised her antenna: “She said we owed the electrical company, she was not at all professional... if she had been she would have said SCE.”
In addition, Danielle said the woman said Familia Diaz owed “fifty-four-ninety-five... when I asked if she meant $504.95 she said yes.” And when Danielle asked the caller when the last payment had been posted she replied July 5, but there was a processing error and the new payment had been due July 10. I told her if the bill is only five days past due they would not be able to shut off our power in an hour.
“It was getting ridiculous... she was getting caught in her own lies.” Danielle told the woman she would call her back: instead she called SCE, and a representative confirmed the restaurant was current in its payments. “SCE customer service said first of all they’d never contact a customer by phone, that’s definitely a red flag.”
Danielle reported the incident and the previous one to SCE and called police, but a SPPD officer said since no money was lost a theft had not occurred. Danielle then called the woman back and left a voicemail.
“There was nothing on her voicemail to indicate she was with SCE and when she called back she started speaking in Spanish... I told her ‘I called just to let you know I have reported you’ to SCE and the police. She said it was a pleasure and hung up” without further comment. “If you’re going to fake it,” said Danielle, “fake it better than that!”
Often Hispanic-owned businesses have been the target of such scams, said SCE Region Manager Nancy Williams, who noted there are easy ways customers can protect themselves. “We always recommend when people get calls like this to hang up and call us directly” to check on the account status, as well as to report the fraud attempt.
Williams said SCE has “done an extensive outreach campaign, over and above what is normal, because we are aware this is going on” involving not only SCE, but also all other utility providers. “Our biggest message is - please don’t fall for this, any regulated industry does not require” such hurry up payments under the threat of power disconnection.
Williams urged anyone who receives such calls to hang up and call SCE at (800) 655-4555.