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Scammers intensify efforts to trick utility customers out of cash

Utility scams spiked in Florida in 2021
Duke Energy logo
Posted at 5:19 PM, Mar 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-01 17:25:14-05

TAMPA BAY — Three Brothers Market, a St. Petersburg staple, has been serving up breakfast and lunch to locals for most of the last 30 years. The owner, Andy Khdair, said he didn't think much about a call regarding an overdue electric bill in late December.

“I knew I had to make a payment at the time, so I wasn't shocked that I was getting a phone call from Duke Energy,” Khdair said.

The caller was overly polite, couching the scam as more of an offer to help and Andy said the person on the other end seemed familiar with their business, referencing the store name and that a bill was due. Andy said he was asked to make a payment toward the balance to keep the lights on at Three Brothers Market.

“It was more like we are trying to help you; we want to avoid cutting off the electrical service to this place,” he said.

Duke Energy said the tone of the call is just another of several updated tricks that scammers use to convince small business owners like Three Brothers out of their hard-earned money. They often clone the power company’s phone numbers and sometimes even their automated system.

Another tactic these bad actors use is to target restaurants during rush hour just as they did with Three Brother’s Market. Andy sent $672 dollars via Zelle before realizing the caller was an imposter.

When it comes to losing money to this scam, he has plenty of company. In 2021 about 4,500 Duke Energy customers in Florida reported scam attempts. Of these customers, 175 paid the scammers, in total, about $135,000.

Nearly 5,000 TECO customers in Florida reported hearing from scammers, twice as many as in 2020 when about 150 victims lost a total of $88,000.

Duke and TECO said they won't call you about overdue bills and they don’t use pay apps to collect payments. They send late notices in the mail. Criminals will get another number which is why it's always best just to hang up. If you need to reach your utility, call them using the number printed on your last statement.