February 21

Maine business owner hit by fake utility scam

Callers demand money in the form of a prepaid debit card, and use a threat that the electricity will be shut off without immediate payment.

By Craig Crosby
Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — After Tina Charest had scurried to borrow money to keep on the lights and heat at her bar, when she finally had time to stop and think, she realized something wasn’t right. By then, it was too late. Her money was gone.

click image to enlarge

Tina Charest describes how she fell victim to a scammer who called about the power bill for her business at Charlamagne’s Bar & Lounge on Water Street in Augusta on Friday.

Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“I can’t believe I fell for this,” Charest said. “I’m so mad.”

Central Maine Power Co. earlier this month urged the public to be wary of scammers claiming to represent the utility company and demanding payment of a bill under threat of imminent disconnection.

“The callers have tried to work this deception mostly on restaurants, markets and other small businesses,” CMP spokeswoman Gail Rice said in a news release. “Some residential customers have also been targeted.”

Charest, who owns Charlamagne’s Bar & Lounge on Water Street, is one of the scammers’ most recent victims.

It started shortly after 5:15 p.m. Wednesday when Charest got a call from someone claiming to be a CMP employee. The caller, who knew Charest’s name and the name and address of her business, said a technician would be at the bar in less than an hour to shut off the electricity if Charest did not pay $500. The electric bill, which she said was a couple of weeks late, was already weighing on Charest. Now her mind raced to the prospect of watching her restaurant go dark while full of customers.

INSISTING ON PREPAID DEBIT CARD

“She said we’re shutting down power within 40 minutes,” Charest said. “I was panicking.”

She said she tried reasoning with the scammer, explaining the recent snowfall has kept customers away, making the budget tighter than usual. The scammer, unmoved, continued to demand the $500. Charest tried to pay with a credit card, but the scammer said she couldn’t accept that form of payment.

“I begged them to take a credit card,” Charest said.

The scammer instead directed Charest to a local business where she could buy a prepaid debit card, such as a Green Dot MoneyPak, to make a payment. Because it was after hours and Charest’s bank was closed, she borrowed $500 from a friend so she could buy the debit card.

The cards, similar to an iTunes card, have hidden numbers that are revealed by scratching away a film. Anyone who knows the hidden numbers can drain money from the card. The scammer asked Charest for the revealed numbers, saying she needed them to reserve the payment until Charest could give the card to the technician coming to turn off the power. At one point the scammer transferred the call to a man claiming to be a technician to help arrange a meeting.

TECHNiCIAN FAILS TO materializE

“They said it’s very important you hand him this card,” Charest said. “She was convincing.”

Charest gave the woman the card number and then went to the restaurant to pay the technician. She waited more than an hour for the technician, who never showed up.

Charest’s heart sank as she began to realize what had happened. The 800 number she had called back just earlier in the evening was now disconnected. The money from the prepaid credit card was already gone. Her worst fears were confirmed when she called CMP.

“I’m not even in disconnection status,” said Charest, who also works as Augusta deputy clerk.

According to CMP, customers can verify the identity of a CMP employee by asking for the person’s employee number, then calling CMP at (800) 750-4000 to verify and ask about the status of the account.

The scammer never asked Charest to provide her customer account number and Charest never asked the caller if she could verify the number. If Charest had asked the caller to provide the number it likely would have killed the scam, said Detective Sgt. Matthew Clark of the Augusta police.

(Continued on page 2)

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