Some people are trying to get your money to via utility-related scams
David Bayle was completely taken off guard when DTE Energy called early one morning in January and wanted some $1,600 on the spot. Pay up, the callers said, or the utility would move to shut off the electricity almost immediately.
“They make it sound like you have one hour,” Bayle said. “They don’t give you much time to think.”
So, all he thought about was his 8-year-old grandson and his daughter who live with him on an old farm in St. Clair County.
“I can’t have my electricity shut off in the middle of winter. It’s January,” he said. “No power, you’ve got no heat. No anything.”
Even his well pump wouldn’t work and provide water to the family with out electricity.
His story is ripped right out of the scammers playbook. Find a weak spot and scare the life — and the money — right out of your mark.
Looking back, Bayle, 62, said he didn’t stop and do the one thing he should have done first. Google the DTE Energy number or look up the number on an old bill and then make a call.
Don’t trust the number on caller ID. Or any phone number left on a recording or given to you by a caller making demands for money immediately.
If he verified the number, he says he might not have lost $700 to scammers who were impersonating DTE Energy.
Scammers are out in full force again, pretending to be someone from law enforcement, the Social Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, the water department attempting to change a meter, the U.S. Marshals Service and yes, DTE Energy.
The caller ID, Bayle said, showed what looked like a DTE number. The recording sounded like an alert to a problem with his bill so he called the number left on the recording. Somebody picked up right away.
“Just because it’s ‘DTE Energy’ calling you that doesn’t mean that’s who you’re talking to,” he warns others.
DTE is reporting a new wave of scam attempts early this year. As more people become aware of how scammers operate, the hope is that there will be fewer victims.
So far this year, DTE Energy said it has heard from 11 customers who reported being victims of phone scams.
If a DTE Energy customer wants to check the validity of a caller demanding payment, first hang up and call DTE Customer Service 800-477-4747.
If a utility customer is scammed, they should call DTE Security at 313-235-9113.
Bayle’s story offered some other red flags of fraud:
A demand that you pay by bitcoin
The caller first suggested that Bayle drive to a gas station in Mt. Clemens to send a payment to DTE via a bitcoin ATM there.
“What’s new about the recent reports is that scammers are demanding payment in bitcoin — a virtual currency,” said John Fossen, a DTE spokesperson.
DTE does not accept bitcoin or other virtual currency as a form of payment.
The unique, anonymous nature of cryptocurrency — a currency without a country — makes fraud a possibility if you’re asked by someone to use cash to buy bitcoin.
Some con artists, for example, even have requested that consumers send bitcoin via an ATM as part of phony car sales or fake job opportunities.
I’ve seen some bitcoin ATMs that offer a warning on the screen.
“Do not send bitcoin to anyone you do not know for eBay or to buy a car. It is more than likely a scam,” the screen on one bitcoin ATM read.
Others, including a Ferndale business owner, lost money to the bitcoin-related scam run by those pretending to be from DTE Energy.
A rush to put cash on a prepaid card
When Bayle had trouble trying to use the bitcoin ATM — the scanning code didn’t work somehow — the scammers demanded that he hurry to a store in Roseville to put his money on prepaid cards.
He was flustered, again worried that his electricity would be shut off. Earlier, he had tried to set up a payment plan with DTE Energy but somehow was convinced that this plan didn’t work and now his electricity would soon be shut off.
Bayle had told the callers who he believed from DTE that he only had access to about $700 right now. And it seemed like they were willing to work with him. He bought two cards at $350 each.
Yet DTE Energy — much like the Internal Revenue Service and others — will not demand a specific form of payment. “If a caller insists on payment via a prepaid debit card — especially a specific brand of prepaid card — it is a scam,” DTE warns.
More: How one consumer desperate for a loan got slammed by a fake check scam
More: That’s not the Social Security Administration harassing you
Threats of trouble ahead
The idea that his electricity could be shut off in an hour or so put Bayle off guard.
He spent most of the morning driving to the bank to get cash, driving to a gas station that had a bitcoin ATM and driving later to get one of those prepaid cards.
He’s never fallen for a scam before this one. He knows to hang up on the folks impersonating the IRS and demanding tax payments. But the timing on this scam in the cold winter was different.
He has a tree trimming service, a seasonal job, that leaves him with a limited amount of savings in the winter. So he really didn’t want to take any chances with his electricity.
Yet DTE says people shouldn’t feel threatened. You can even take the time to pull out your most recent DTE Energy bill and ask the caller to tell you the account number and the amount due. Most scammers aren’t going to have those details.
DTE Energy does not ask customers to provide their account numbers.
The utility noted that it will ask its customers to validate account information such as the billing zip code, or last four digits of their Social Security number prior to discussing account details to protect our customers’ private information.
But DTE Energy does not call for payment if the account is in good standing. If a customer is behind on payments, DTE will mail a warning notice, providing the steps to restore the account to good standing and continue service.
If Bayle didn’t feel threatened, he might have paid attention to all the foreign-accents of the callers, the rush for cash and just the whole idea of paying for a simple utility bill with bitcoin.
“They just caught me at a bad time,” Boyle said. “I didn’t even know what a bitcoin machine was.”
Contact Susan Tompor: firstname.lastname@example.org or 313-222-8876. Follow Susan on Twitter @Tompor.
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