The ruse orchestrated by these criminal minds is that of impersonating utility company representatives who are warning area businesses their monthly utility payment is overdue. If payment is not made immediately, they caution, the business could face service disconnection.
To expedite their misdeed, callers are advising Cleveland Utilities customers to make prompt payment by using reloadable debit cards or reusable gift cards. Specifically, scammers are apparently urging the use of MoneyPaks, a form of reloadable debit card that can be purchased easily in most major department stores, pharmacies and a variety of other locations.
At last report, three area businesses — all of whom are serviced by Cleveland Utilities — have received such telephone calls. Thankfully, none has fallen for the scam and each has taken the next appropriate step of contacting the local utility company.
This is exactly what should be done.
Of paramount concern is these heartless scam artists, as they appear to be doing in other Tennessee communities and in cities around the country, may begin preying on elderly residents — some of whom are more vulnerable to such predators.
As we reported on our front page, and as we will continue to report based on community need, local residents and businesses should remain wary of such perpetrators. In our Cleveland hometown so far, only merchants have been contacted. CU has received no reports of residential customers facing such harassment.
But that’s not to say it won’t happen. Indeed, it could.
Scammers might also resort to a bolder move — that of not limiting their crimes to the telephone, but to front-door visits. One such report emerged recently in Nashville, an incident that led the Nashville Electric Service to issue a scam alert.
According to the NES utility bulletin, customers were warned to beware of “... fake utility workers who recently targeted an elderly woman and stole items from her home.”
The Nashville utility reported two young men wearing safety vests approached the woman and claimed they worked for NES. The pair told the customer they were installing new wire underground to improve reliability and prevent power outages.
While the customer was led outside to view where digging would take place, the other man gained access to her home and searched her belongings.
NES cautioned its customers to be on the lookout for such crimes and to keep an eye out for elderly neighbors.
“Customers should be aware of potential scammers who frequently target the elderly and often try to enter a person’s home or ask for payment information,” the NES alert cited.
Similar warnings have been issued within the past few weeks by the Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division and by the Knoxville Utility Board. In both cities, reported scams have been limited to telephone contacts and all have insisted that customers make immediate payment using the reloadable gift or debit cards.
When Cleveland Utilities received its first reports of scam activity against customers, the utility took the same action and issued a public alert.
CU also included additional information that should be helpful to anyone receiving such phone calls.
“Cleveland Utilities does not make direct phone calls to our customers regarding past due bills or to collect payments over the telephone,” Paula Wills, manager of CU Customer Service and Billing, told our newspaper.
Tim Henderson, CU vice president of Administrative Services, urged local customers to safeguard against such deception by checking out the caller’s story first ... simply by calling CU at 423-472-4521.
“Anyone who feels like they have been scammed, in which callers claimed to represent Cleveland Utilities or ‘the local power company,’ should contact us immediately to confirm the status of their utility account,” Henderson stressed. CU customers, and any area resident, can also contact the Cleveland Police Department or Bradley County Sheriff’s Office.
Although the scams reported so far are by telephone, we urge the community — whether or not you are a Cleveland Utilities customer — to remain skeptical of any such nonsense calls.
And by all means, demand identification — and then follow it up with a phone call to CU for verification — from anyone who comes knocking on the front door, claiming to be a utility representative.
It is the Christmas season, a time of deserved joy for all within our community.
Sadly, it is also just another opportunity for wrongdoers to spread their webs of deceit to any who might fall victim to such heinous crimes.