The call was suspicious right away. A caller claiming to represent The United Illuminating Co. was telling a staff member at Hummel Bros. that the company’s electric bill was past due. A UI technician, the caller claimed, would arrive within the hour to shut off service — unless Hummel loaded $1,000 onto a pre-paid credit card and made an immediate payment.
It was more than 90 degrees out, and the New Haven food processing company had its coolers full of hot dogs, hams and other meats. A loss of power would have been a major problem. But Mary Ellen McMahon, the company’s co-owner, was not taking the bait.
“We knew it wasn’t legitimate,” McMahon said. “We had just received a statement, so we knew we had no outstanding balance.”
Instead of paying up, McMahon and her staff recorded the caller’s number from caller ID and called UI, which confirmed no one was coming to shut off the electricity. Instead, UI’s security staff took down the details of the incident to help with ongoing investigations into this type of criminal fraud.
Unfortunately, not everyone has McMahon’s presence of mind. UI and its parent company, UIL Holdings Corp., are aware of dozens of similar calls in recent months — many of them placed to food companies that stood to lose thousands of dollars of refrigerated inventory if they were to lose electric service. A few were successfully hectored into paying up.
“These calls are often placed from temporary telephone numbers, so it’s difficult to trace who’s making the calls,” said Wendy Ardizzone, UIL’s manager of security services. “Moreover, they often ask for payment using pre-paid credit cards, so it’s difficult to trace the transactions, too.
“In the case of Hummel’s and some other customers, UI representatives were able to contact the company that provided the temporary phone number the scammer was using and shut down that particular number,” Ardizzone said. “Meanwhile, we advise all customers who call in to report these incidents to contact local law enforcement and file a report. We will work with local law enforcement as necessary to investigate these incidents.”
UIL urges customers of all of its companies — UI, The Southern Connecticut Gas Co., Connecticut Natural Gas Corp. and Berkshire Gas Co. — to be wary of unexpected collections calls from people claiming to be company representatives.
Specifically, they should be suspicious if:
• The caller claims the customer has an overdue payment, when the account is in fact paid in full.
• The caller asks the customer to pay using a pre-paid credit card.
• The caller discourages the recipient from making efforts to validate the collections effort, for example by calling the utility’s main number.
• The caller is unable to provide company credentials, or does not have access to customer information.
If you suspect you are being scammed:
• Check your caller ID and note the number you are being called from.
• Get the caller’s name and position with the company, and ask for a callback number.
• Have the caller confirm your account number. (Your account number is on your bill.)
• Never provide personal or account information to anyone you are not sure is legitimately representing the company.
• Call the company to report the scam. If you have lost money in a scam, you should report it to your local police department as soon as possible.