News Column

S.C. Con Artists Target Hispanics with Fake Overdue Utility Bills

Feb, 1 2013

Allison Stice

The voice on the telephone told the Palmetto Electric customer that electricity would be cut off if his outstanding bill wasn't paid right away.

The customer followed the caller's directions, hurried to a nearby store and bought a $200 MoneyPak card to send money to avoid being disconnected.

But the caller was a con artist.

And the customer wasn't the first to fall prey, according to Palmetto Electric spokesman Jimmy Baker.

Since December, swindlers posing as Palmetto Electric representatives have been calling customers and claiming payment is needed immediately. Baker said the con artists seem to be targeting Hispanics.

Fewer than 10 people have called Palmetto Electric about the suspicious calls, according to Baker. Only two have reported they paid the money, but the co-op, which serves Beaufort, Jasper and Hampton counties, worries there are more victims who haven't come forward.

Similar scams have struck electricity providers in Newberry and Horry counties, according to Mark Quinn, director of public and member relations for the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina. Reports of similar schemes have occurred in Virginia, as well.

"What's disturbing is it is targeting the Hispanic population, and those are the folks I believe are the most vulnerable," Quinn said. "They may be a little leery of dealing with authorities, whether ... it's because of immigration issues or the language barrier."

SCE&G, which serves parts of the Lowcountry, has dealt with similar reports of fraud but has not noticed a pattern of callers targeting a particular demographic group, utility spokeswoman Kim Asbill said.

Quinn said the state co-op association has met informally with the S.C. Attorney General's Office to figure out how to fight the problem.

Mark Powell, spokesman for the Attorney General's Office, said it is collecting more information from cooperatives before deciding how to proceed. All cooperatives in the state association have been given surveys to track fraud reports, Quinn said.

The cooperatives also are getting the word out to Hispanics. In Beaufort County, Palmetto Electric has teamed with La Isla magazine to post bilingual advertisements. Quinn said electricity providers are notifying customers statewide through Spanish-language radio and churches.

The advertisements and fliers all say that electric providers do not ask for payment over the phone and that the process of cutting off power takes more than a phone call.

Though the callers are savvy enough to know which households are Spanish-speaking, they do not appear to have access to Palmetto Electric account information, Baker said. Baker said the co-op's information-technology department has not reported a breach.

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Distributed by MCT Information Services



Source: (c) 2013 The Island Packet (Hilton Head, S.C.)


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