Mike Forsythe, the general manager of Mellow Mushroom in Tampa, recently receive a phone call from someone he thought was a Tampa Electric employee.
“They were being pretty aggressive about shutting the power off,” he said.
But it turns out his restaurant was being targeted by a years-old scam with a new twist that TECO calls “spoofing.”
“They’re copying TECO’s phone number, so when they call, it looks like TECO is calling you,” said TECO spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs.
She explained scammers are now calling small businesses, rather than the older customers as in years past, and demanding payment with a pre-paid debit card on what they claim is past due bill.
Jacobs said the caller is placing these calls during peak business hours and threatening to cut power within hours if the bill is not paid immediately.
“Right before happy hour, we got a call saying we were past due on TECO. They wanted immediate payment or they’d shut off the power,” Forsythe said.
TECO said 1,000 similar complaints have come in over the past eight months, with at least 65 of those people saying they were tricked into actually paying the bogus bill. Jacobs estimated at least $65,000 has been lost over the last eight months.
“It puts businesses in a touchy situation. They get scared and pay over the phone,” said Forsythe. The employee who took the call recognized the scam and immediately called authorities.
“TECO will never call you to demand payment. That’s not how we do business. If you are in danger of disconnection, we will send you your final notice in writing,” said Jacobs.
She advised anyone who has received a spoof phone call to alert TECO or the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
A spokesperson with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said the agency has no leads on where this scam is originating.