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Phone scam targets businesses in Southern Illinois

Published: Friday, Dec. 13, 2013 10:59 a.m. CDT

(Continued from Page 1)

(MCT) — Scammers trying to frighten businesses with threats of "pay up now" or they will cut their utilities are hitting the St. Louis area, with success at least once in Southern Illinois.

The caller claims to be from Ameren, and says the business — usually a restaurant — is delinquent in paying its utility bills. The caller says if the company does not pay the bill that day, it will cut its power. The amount due usually is about $500.

"We get about five of these calls per week," said Brian Bretsch, communications executive at Ameren's Collinsville office, regarding reports to the company's security division about the threatening calls. Those calls are from business owners or managers within the utility company's St. Louis service area of 3.3 million people.

Bretsch said sometimes the scammers will say they are from other types of companies, including telephone, or the Internal Revenue Service. The thieves operate throughout the country.

Across the river in Missouri, at least two restaurants in West St. Louis County and one in Clayton got the calls in recent weeks, the latter on a Saturday afternoon. None of the three businesses fell for the hustle.

One police agency took two of the incident reports and advised anyone getting such a call to hang up the phone, a television station reported. A second police department did not take a report from a co-owner, ostensibly because there was no victim. An officer at that department told the co-owner, "Ameren already is aware of this."

Bretsch said the scammers did convince a restaurant owner in Centralia to pay a phony bill of several hundred dollars two weeks ago. Also in Centralia, a conman also nearly duped the owner of a gas station-convenience store. Bretsch said the man happened to tell someone about the threatening call while getting a MoneyPak card with which to pay the caller. The person he encountered at the store, though, fortunately talked him out of being duped, Bretsch said.

A scammer who called the manager of one of the Missouri restaurants simply asked for the business' credit card number to use for payment, a co-owner said. Bretsch, though, said the con artists usually use a more complicated means to quickly obtain money without the victim or authorities being able to trace or identify them.

"The scam artist instructs the victim to buy a Green Dot MoneyPak card which allows you to put a certain amount of money on the card," Bretsch. "The scammers are using a magicJack (device) that hooks up to their computer or laptop and is non-traceable" to make the call. "The scam artist then demands the PIN number on back of the card, and just like that, the victim's money is gone."

People buy the reloadable, Green Dot debit cards at various chain stores using cash. The card purchaser then scratches off the coating covering the card's 14-digit serial number. He or she provides those numbers to a vendor -- or scammer -- who instantly downloads the money uploaded onto the card, using just those numbers.

MagicJack is a device people plug into their telephone and computer, which allows them to have unlimited phone service across the United States and Canada for a set monthly price. Customers must have high-speed Internet service.

The phone calls are untraceable, but Bretsch said scammers frequently will replace the magicJacks in order to keep the telephone numbers fresh that may show up on potential victims' caller identification displays.

Bretsch said Ameren never calls customers to tell them their electric or gas service is going to be terminated for lack of payment. The company mails shutoff notices.

"We don't call customers requesting payments and using pressure and scare tactics," he said. "Scam artists are very convincing, but our policy is to always work with our customers to work out payment plans. If they (scammers) call, ask for their name and number and say you will call them back. Then call 1 (800) 755-5000. We can tell you if there is a payment issue."

(c)2013 The Telegraph (Alton, Ill.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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