Power play: New telephone scam rampant on Marco
These scams come in waves, said Karen Ryan, and Marco Island currently has a wave washing over it.
Ryan is public relations manager for LCEC, the Lee County Electric Cooperative, and she said the company’s customers have recently been subjected to a surge of telephone calls from people claiming to represent LCEC and demanding immediate payment “or your power will be shut off.”
The callers tell their victims to get preloaded credit cards or phone cards, or even worse, try to get them to share their financial information. They give a number to call, which is answered, “LCEC – how can I help you?” said Ryan, which they discovered when an actual LCEC staffer called the number to investigate. When challenged, the man abruptly hung up, she said.
Capt. Dave Baer of the MIPD said his department has received 40 or more calls in the last week or so reporting the scam, with most coming from businesses. If that many citizens took it on themselves to notify the police, it is reasonable to suppose that hundreds more received the same call.
“These scammers go from area to area. They get burner phones and change their caller ID so it looks like they’re calling from LCEC,” said Ryan. “The best thing to do is hang up.
“There are so many scams. They are very sophisticated. Some of them try to get your bank account number,” which could lead to an account being drained. She urged LCEC customers not to rely on the phone number given to them over the phone as being accurate.
“Go to our website, and get the phone number,” or call the number on your electric bill, to be sure you are really speaking with the utility company, and not someone bent on stealing.
Companies and agencies on Sanibel, also covered by LCEC, had received these calls and notified the utility, she said, including CROW, the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife.
“They didn’t fall for it, and their bill wasn’t past due,” said Ryan.
One business on Marco Island that reported the scam attempt to MIPD was Prout’s Plumbing & Supply on E. Elkcam Circle.
“We just got that call yesterday,” said Karen Schmidt. “They told me ‘you’re in jeopardy of having our electric shut off. I need to talk to your manager.’ They wanted a credit card. I said, ‘that’s the most bogus call I’ve ever gotten.’”
She turned it over to company owner Cindy Pierce, who knew their electric bill was current, and notified the police.
The ones most at risk, said Ryan, are those who might indeed be behind on their payment, or not know whether or not it had been paid. The confusion factor, said Keith Dameron, explains why Marco Island and Collier County are such fertile ground for these schemes.
“In Collier County, 31 percent are 65 and over,” while in Lee County just to the north, the percentage is just 11, he said. “Older residents, who are sometimes more easily intimidated, plus the wealth here, make this area a magnet for scammers.”
Dameron is a founding member of Sheriff Kevin Rambosk’s Collier ID Fraud Task Force, and has been giving presentations on how to avoid falling victim to fraud and identity theft for over eight years.
Senior citizens who are victimized are often reluctant to let anyone know about it, he said. In addition to the embarrassment, many worry that their children or caregivers might take away control of their affairs from them if they know the seniors were duped.
“Only 20 percent will actually report it,” he said. How to avoid falling victim? “Don’t give any information over the phone. Call the company yourself,” at a number you verify is real.
LCEC also has a page on their website devoted to fraud, and how to avoid it, at www.lcec.net/my-home/safety/scams-protect-yourself.