Scammers swindle Americans out of millions of dollars a year by working a slick game. In fact, our area's energy giant, PECO, is locked in a battle with scammers right now.
FOX 29 Investigates' Jeff Cole reveals how this swindle is pulling big bucks from local energy users.
Perched above the water in Bensalem, High Tides Restaurant and Bar has served-up booze and grub for almost two years now.
The early days in the restaurant business are often the toughest as a loyal clientele is built. Any bump in the road can mean big trouble.
"They said they were on their way out within 20 minutes to disconnect the power, specifically to take the meter," said Paul Stopyra, co-owner of High Tides.
The call came in on a landline in August. It was PECO – or at least Stopyra thought it was – threatening to pull the plug on the bar unless some money was slapped down on an overdue bill.
What was Stopyra thinking when the call came in?
"It's 4 o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon. You know, I'm running a restaurant," he said.
He called the number that was left and gets an operator who, he claims, knows specific details about his business:
- • like problems with getting the bar's mail;
- • he claims the caller knew their billing address was different than the restaurant's address;
- • and he says the operator confirmed the phone number linked to their PECO account.
"Which happened to be my partner's cell phone number, which is not listed anywhere," he said.
He says he had some doubts, but he followed the instructions to buy what's called MoneyPak cards at Rite Aid and call back with the card number.
"I go ahead and do what they tell me, and I make the payment," he said.
He did it in part because of what he heard on the phone.
"So when you called the number they gave you, you got PECO?" Cole asked.
"PECO. I got the 'PECO line,'" Stopyra said, making quotation marks with his fingers. "I got the PECO recording."
You read that right: Stopyra, who was taken for $3,800, and a bookkeeper for another PECO customer both tell FOX 29 that when they called back the number the scammers left for them, they got what sounded like PECO's phone system.
It's all part of a sophisticated scam that's separating utility customers from their money.
PECO spokesperson Ben Armstrong says the utility is aware of what's happening and has alerted its customers to the scam, but so far has been unable to stop it.
"You know that they have the technology to fake your system – that people are calling in and they think they're actually talking to you?" Cole asked.
"These scammers are replicating portions of PECO's voicemail system, and we are working with local authorities to investigate how this is happening and to determine whether or not there's any way to keep it from happening," Armstrong responded.
He says the scammer calls started with a trickle back in 2011 with just six attempts. But they jumped to 28 the following year, nearly 500 the next, and peaked at over 1,700 in 2014.
And they're still coming! PECO says in 2015, 86 customers were taken for $67,000. This year, 67 customers have lost $78,000.
Remember, Stopyra says the scammers had detailed information about his PECO account.
"There's been no breach of your data system?" Cole followed-up. "No one is in there poaching and then using it to take money from your customers?"
"We have absolutely not had a breach of our security system, or of our IT system, of our customer information system," Armstrong told us.
PECO believes the scammers are just guessing about what its residential and business customers may owe.
Lisa Solis is a bookkeeper for a couple of city bars with a sense of humor.
"When they asked me for the name on the account, I told them my name was Sandra O'Connor," she said, later adding, "It might be my full name, Sandra Day O'Connor" – the name of the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court.
When the scammers hit her bars, she knew it was bogus because she says they're on autopay with the utility.
But she called back to have a little fun.
"I was really surprised to hear PECO's phone greeting, so it threw me off a little bit," she said.
She listened to the scammers' pitch and even recorded it.
The scammer can be heard on the recording saying, "The only way we can avoid a disconnection is making a decent minimum payment which is going to be for $495.26. … Are you able to get the funds to make a payment?"
"I'm not sure," Solis says on the recording.
PECO says it knows of electric, water and gas utility customers across the country and Canada being chased by scammers. It has a scam alert page on its website, claims it has stuffed information into customer mailings and has even posted warnings on the electronic billboard atop its headquarters.
"Many of these scams are beginning off-shore – the Dominican Republic, Mexico and some other places," Armstrong said.
Solis says she aches for the small business owners and the elderly who could be taken by these scammers. So, when she got one on the phone, she made him go through his pitch over and over again.
"I made him go back and back at least six times," she said. "… It was hilarious."
Green Dot, the maker of the MoneyPak cards, says they removed the cards from the market for a while when they realized swindlers were abusing them. They say they're looking into Stopyra's complaint, but they've already recovered nearly $1,000 for him.
Rite Aid says it too is aware of these types of scams, but wasn't made aware of this particular one. It says it's trying to resolve the situation for its customer, Cole reporter.