CLEVELAND — 5 On You Side Investigators have been getting a lot of calls about a widespread scam hitting northeast Ohio. A local man lost hundreds of dollars after crooks claiming to be from the electric company told him they would shut off his power if he didn’t pay them immediately.
“I wasn’t quite sure what was going on at first,” said Bruce, 64, from Brooklyn, who didn’t want to use his last name. He’s a bit embarrassed he fell for the utility scam.
“I did not question them. I did not doubt their sincerity,” he told us.
The scammers called his home phone and told Bruce he had to pay them nearly $500 or they could cut his power within the hour even while we’re dealing with coronavirus. “I got burned by the biggest virus in the world…man!” said Bruce.
They told him to go inside a nearby gas station. Here’s where it gets even more interesting. We have to point out that the store didn’t do anything wrong, but the scammers involved didn’t want Bruce to send gift cards or wire the money. Instead, they wanted him to transfer the cash into a BitCoin kiosk.
“Deposit the money, the $500, into the kiosk, but not to talk to any of the clerks there because they would charge me an additional amount,” said Bruce, explaining what he was told by the crooks.
“They’re going to try to scare you and try to get you to pay quickly,” said Jon Steiger from the Federal Trade Commission office in Cleveland. He told us, unfortunately, the utility scam is effective.
“They’re going to try to get you to pay, almost always, by an unusual payment mechanism,” warned Steiger.
“I stood there feeding 20 and 50 dollar bills (into the BitCoin kiosk),” said Bruce.
“Any legitimate utility company or other government agency will give you more than one way to pay,” said Steiger.
Both the FTC and the Better Business Bureau say they’re getting reports of more scams like this in our area. They even sent out recent warnings.
Kathy Bruno from Mentor got a similar call, too.
“It makes me really angry as a senior citizen,” said Bruno.
The scammers posed as Illuminating Company reps saying they were giving her a rebate and some additional money as well. “I said, ‘How about if I call the Illuminating Company and get this information to them?’” said Bruno about the conversation. “And he started yelling at me and said, ‘Why are you wasting my time?’” He then hung up.
The FTC said the best thing to do to protect yourself is something similar to what Bruno did. “Just say to them, ‘Thank you very much. I’m going to look into this,’” said Steiger. “And then, go to your bill and get the phone number that you know that is for your utility company.”
Bruce did that eventually and found out too late that it was all a scam.
“I just want to make people out there aware of this and be alert,” he told us.
The FTC said make sure you report scam calls even if you don’t fall for them. The agency shares info with law enforcement, and you never know what detail will help catch the crooks.