AUGUSTA — The stink settled in quickly, shortly after Tina Charest had scurried to raise the money, even borrowing from a friend, to keep on the lights and heat at her restaurant. When she finally had time to stop and think about what had happened, all that was said, Charest realized something didn’t smell right. By then, it was too late. Her money was gone.
“I can’t believe I fell for this,” Charest said. “I’m so mad.”
Central Maine Power earlier this month urged the public to be wary of scammers claiming to represent the utility company and demanding payment of a bill under threat of imminent disconnection.
“The callers have tried to work this deception mostly on restaurants, markets and other small businesses,” CMP spokeswoman Gail Rice said in a news release. “Some residential customers have also been targeted.”
Charest, who owns Charlamagne’s Bar & Lounge on Water Street, is one of the scammers’ most recent victims.
It started shortly after 5:15 p.m. Wednesday when Charest got a call from someone claiming to be a CMP employee. The caller, who knew Charest’s name and the name and address of her business, said a technician would be at the bar in less than an hour to shut off the electricity if Charest did not pay $500. The electric bill, which she said was a couple of weeks late, was already weighing on Charest. Now her mind raced to the prospect of watching her restaurant go dark while full of customers and employees.
“She said we’re shutting down power within 40 minutes,” Charest said. “I was panicking.”
She said she tried reasoning with the scammer, explaining the recent snowfall has kept customers away, making the budget tighter than usual. The scammer, unmoved, continued to demand the $500. Charest tried to pay with a credit card, but the scammer said she couldn’t accept that form of payment.
“I begged them to take a credit card,” Charest said.
The scammer instead directed Charest to a local business where she could buy a prepaid debit card, such as a Green Dot MoneyPak, to make a payment. Because it was after hours and Charest’s bank was closed, she borrowed $500 from a friend so that she could buy the debit card.
The cards, similar to an iTunes card, have hidden numbers that are revealed by scratching away a film. Anyone who knows the hidden numbers can drain money from the card. The scammer asked Charest for the revealed numbers, saying she needed the numbers to reserve the payment until Charest could give the card to the technician coming to turn off the power. At one point the scammer even transferred the call to a man claiming to be a technician to help arrange a meeting.
“They said it’s very important you hand him this card,” Charest said. “She was convincing.”
Charest gave the woman the card number and then went to the restaurant to pay the technician. She waited more than an hour for the technician, who never showed up.
Charest’s heart sank as she began to realize what had happened. The 800 number she had called back just earlier in the evening was now disconnected. The money from the prepaid credit card was already gone. Her worst fears were confirmed when she called CMP.
“I’m not even in disconnection status,” said Charest, who also works as deputy clerk for the city of Augusta.
According to CMP, customers can verify the identity of a CMP employee by asking for their employee number, then calling CMP at 1-800-750-4000 to verify the person’s identity and ask about the status of the account.
The scammer never asked Charest to provide her customer account number and Charest never asked the caller if she could verify the number. If Charest had asked the caller to provide the number it likely would have killed the scam, said Detective Sgt. Matthew Clark of the Augusta Police.
“If somebody is a legitimate business they should be able to tell you what your account number is,” Clark said. “If they can’t that’s an obvious problem.”
But businesses owners often don’t think to ask such question when faced with the loss of electricity and resulting impact on the business. The strict time frame is designed to add to that stress, Clark said.
“That throws the anxiety levels up there,” he said. “At the time, in her mind, it’s, â€˜I’ve got to stop them from shutting off the power.”
Clark said the prepaid credit cards, like Green Dot MoneyPaks, are popular among scammers.
“It’s just like a credit card once you give them the number,” he said. “Any time anyone asks for a Green Dot card, that’s a big red flag.”
Clark said one other city business fell victim to the same scam within the past year. The problem has been prevalent enough statewide to prompt CMP to send out a notice to warm customers.
“Utility customers can be a convenient target for these scammers,” Rice said in the release. “Most everyone does business with an energy company and pays utility bills.”
Martha Currier, compliance examiner in the consumer protection division of the Office of the Attorney General, urges everyone to be suspicious of any unsolicited phone call seeking money.
“The best thing they can do is hang up and don’t engage the caller,” she said.
Currier spends much of her day educating people about scams and trying to protect others from becoming victims. The range of methods criminals use to take advantage of others run far and wide, and have targeted people across social and economic classes.
“These scams run circles around one another,” Currier said. “Everyone should be on the alert for unsolicited phone calls and people asking for money. That’s just the age we live in now.”
If you questions a call, or believe you’ve been scammed, Currier urges you to call the consumer protection division at 800-436-2131 or email [email protected]
Craig Crosby — 621-5642 [email protected]