Thieves target local businesses in utility bill scam

INDIANAPOLIS - Thieves are targeting employees who answer the phones at businesses in a long-running utility company billing scam that police are tracking in the Indianapolis area.

The scam involves criminals posing as representatives from a utility company and threatening to cut off electricity if payment is not made immediately using non-refundable gift cards or instant money cards.

Metro police started seeing a surge of fraud reports last year from people who were told their home or apartments would be left in the dark, but several Indianapolis businesses have now joined the ranks of potential victims.

A worker at a Castleton Square Mall eatery detailed for police how one of the latest attempts unfolded.

A manager at Freshii Restaurant told police that she answered the phone and a man identified himself as an official with Indianapolis Power and Light.  The caller claimed she needed to quickly pay $1,489.50 in order to avoid having the power disconnected at her business.

The scammer provided a local telephone number and instructed the potential victim that she needed to pay cash to purchase three Vanilla payment cards at a CVS store on Allisonville Road and then call him back to read him the 10-digit codes from the cards.

Vanilla and other pre-payment cards are purchased with cash and then allow customers to use them the same as credit cards.  Just as with typical credit cards, the money can be drained if someone knows the 10-digit account number or code on the front of the card.

In the Castleton Square Mall attempt, another store manager called the number provided by the scammer.  The man again said he worked for IPL and then offered to let the would-be victim speak to a so-called manager.

The Freshii Restaurant manager realized it was a scam and halted the conversation without going any further, police wrote in their report.

Several other Indianapolis businesses have filed police reports over the past three weeks, including one that actually did lose money.  In that case, the employee of a business told police he was trying to help avoid any disruption for customers by paying up in order to keep the lights on.  That case also involved an instant money card being purchased, with the numbers being provided to the scammer.

The scammers typically drain the funds from those pre-paid cards within minutes of receiving the numbers from their victims.

Indianapolis Power and Light has been displaying a warning posting its latest warning about the scams last month, noting that some of the scammers are using caller-ID diversion devices to make it seem as though the real power company is calling.

IPL spokeswoman Brandi Davis-Handy told the Call 6 Investigators that the scams are being reported in waves, with more commercial customers reporting the fraud attempts on some months and mostly residential customers in other months.

She said the real power company never pushes people to make a payment using a specific method.

The Indiana Utility Consumer Counselor issued a warning on the outbreak of scams statewide in October, saying scammers were using the same tactics for power customers nationwide.  The warning spells out that state law requires advance written notice before electricity can be disconnected for lack of payment.

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