Fake utility scammers targeting Florida Keys businesses by threatening to disconnect power because they're falsely derelict in payments are now using caller I.D. technology that is confusing customers even more, officials said Wednesday.
Keys Energy spokesman Julio Torrado reported that at least three Key West restaurants reported receiving phone calls Tuesday from someone purporting to be from the energy company. It's a familiar hoax that has been occurring for months and perhaps for years, but has received widespread media attention recently.
Now the scammers are using technology that masks the real phone number they're calling from by showing the customer the real Keys Energy phone number, Torrado said.
Last month, both Keys Energy and Florida Keys Electric Co-op reported a resurgence in the phone calls, but the phone-masking issue appears to be a relatively new aspect of the fraud, Torrado said.
BlackFin Bistro, 918 Duval St.; Miami Subs, 1800 N. Roosevelt Blvd.; and Blossoms Deli, 408 White St., all reported receiving threatening calls Tuesday, Torrado said. More restaurants may have been called, as the utility was still researching the issue Wednesday, he added.
One reoccurring theme is that the callers are asking for customers to pay them with prepaid cards, which neither Keys Energy nor the Florida Keys Electric Co-op would ask, officials from both utilities said.
Shannon DeLaRosa, a manager at Blossoms, said she asked to speak to supervisors when she received a call during lunch rush.
"They called right in the middle of our lunch rush, and you're geared at that time to your customers and not thinking about bill issues," DeLaRosa said. "There is a 'wait, what's happening?' moment, and it just doesn't click."
Seeing the number was the Keys Energy local line (305-295-1000), DeLaRosa paid the caller using a card before realizing it was a hoax. She was able to get the roughly $1,300 refunded through the credit card company.
DeLaRosa urged other business operators to hang up and call their utility provider, and ask the suspected scammer for a direct telephone line.
BlackFin Bistro and Miami Subs representatives reported the fraud attempt, but didn't send the caller any money, Torrado said.
"Don't let them bully you," she said. "Say, I'll check my account and call you back, but hindsight is always 20/20."
If any businesses are suspicious of any billing call, just hang up, Torrado said.
Both utility companies will send letters, leave door hangers and take myriad other steps before disconnecting power, officials said.
"The problem we have now is that the number appears to be legitimate," Torrado said. "This is technology is used in a lot of scams, but seems to be just targeting our area now. And business, not residential customers, appear to be the target." That being said, Torrado wanted to warn residents as well.
"Once money is transacted, there's not much that can be done, which is why we're trying to spread the word as much as we can," he said.
DeLaRosa and Miami Subs filed police reports regarding the calls. The Miami Subs report states that a man purporting to be "Jason Smith" told a manager to buy six $500 Green Dot prepaid money cards from a local pharmacy and provide the card information to him.
"Smith" wanted the manager to call him back at 1-866,-624,-5921 ext. 211, but the manager called Keys Energy while still on the line with "Smith" and was alerted to the scam.
The police report states there are multiple cases under investigation.
Customers who receive a call they believe to be a scam should report the incident to their utility, the Key West police at 305-809-1111, or the sheriff's office at 305-292-7000.
The direct line for Keys Energy Services is 305-295-1000; FKEC's is 305-852-2431.