TACOMA, Wash. -- Tacoma Public Utilities says its been flooded by phone calls from customers that may have been a target of a scam in which a man purports to be with TPU and threatens to turn off their service immediately unless they pay as much as $1,000.
The utility said nearly 200 people have contacted TPU in two days about the scam attempt.
"The scam calls start out the same way they often do, with customers hearing their account is delinquent," TPU said. "The scammers tell customers their utilities will be shut off unless they make a payment immediately – many demanding $1,000 or more."
Because credit/debit cards take time to process, the scammers say, customers are told to purchase pre-paid debit cards at a local convenience store. Instead of taking payment over the phone, however, customers are told to meet a “utility worker” at their meter box or local business to ensure payment is received.
"Requesting face-to-face contact with customers is a new – and potentially dangerous – approach by scammers," TPU said in a news release.
One Tacoma woman told Q13 News she almost fell for the scam.
Callie Sterino said the phone rang and the caller told her she owed near $500 and gave her just 45 minutes to come up with the money -- or else her lights would be shut off. She was told to purchase a pre-paid debit card from a local pharmacy.
"He says ... we are calling because our guys are in your area and they're going to turn your lights off right away," she said.
Callie said she almost followed the instructions, but instead called her twin sister, Connie.
"She says, 'What if they turn my lights off?' And I said, let 'em -- I'm sure it's a scam," said sister Connie.
TPU confirmed she was right.
Tacoma police officer Loretta Cool said, "These are clearly criminals that are trying to take money from you. If you were to meet somebody on a street corner somewhere and hand them a cash-card, what's to stop them from taking your cellphone, your wallet, your purse."
Connie says she hopes nobody else falls for the scam. And as for the guy who threatened to shut off her power, "I wish I could find some of them ... so I could shut 'em down."
Tacoma Public Utilities said its employees will:
• Never call, email, or make a home visit demanding an immediate payment.
• Never request payment on a prepaid card.
• Never call, email, or make a home visit requesting credit card, banking, or financial information.
• Never shut off service without providing written notice at least 7 days in advance.