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Business fraud attempts rising amid COVID-19 pandemic

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COVID-19 has put a business twist on a scam that typically gets used against homeowners during natural disasters.

The scam goes like this: Someone calls or emails you and says they’re from the electric utility company and if you don’t go buy a gift card for hundreds of dollars and read off the number, your electricity will be cut off.

That’s what happened to Roy Neal, co-owner of El Jefe Texican Cantina, this week when he received voicemail he thought was from Dominion Energy. Neal, who owns several businesses, said the caller ID read Dominion Energy, and he even asked for an account number for verification.

The account number was close enough for him to think it was authentic. When he asked to speak to a supervisor, he was switched to someone pretending to be a customer service manager for Dominion.

“He was really good,” Neal said. “They were extremely convincing. It was so convincing, it was unbelievable.”

They told him he had a balance of $2,000 and under a special program related to the coronavirus outbreak he could pay $950, and they would waive the rest. But they were insistent that he had to pay immediately.

He was growing suspicious because he had already talked to Dominion about the electricity at his businesses and had been assured that they weren’t turning anyone’s power off during the crisis, whether businesses or homeowners. Neal said he knew it was a scam when they asked him to stay on the phone and buy a gift card to cover the cost.

Dominion Energy spokesman Matt Long said the company was aware of this scam and said businesses should always be wary when someone demands immediate payment to avoid a disconnect. He said criminals often use technology that can mask their phone number so it looks like the call is from Dominion.

“What we’ve been telling people right now is that we’re not going to be turning off power. That’s absolutely a scam,” Long said. “If you get a call and you are suspicious, just hang up and call the number on your bill.”

Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore said the state-owned utility also was aware of increased attempts to defraud customers during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“We have seen an uptick in these types of scam attempts against our customers as well,” Gore said. “Sadly, criminals don’t stop working in a pandemic.”

Like Dominion, Santee Cooper has suspended disconnects for nonpayment during the COVID-19 outbreak and offers online updates.

Bailey Parker, communications director for the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs, said this type of scam is common during times of disaster, though she said they haven't seen an uptick related to COVID-19. 

Scammers take advantage of the headlines to scare people or make themselves seem more believable, she said.

Neal said he thinks he was particularly susceptible to this attempt because of the pressure he and other entrepreneurs are under in trying to keep their businesses operational right now. He has since put Dominion's mobile app on his phone so he can check his account in real time.

“There's so much stress. I don’t want anyone to get hit by these,” Neal said. “On Dominion Energy’s website, they’re not disconnecting anyone. If you monitor your accounts online, you’re not as susceptible to this.”

Parker said consumers and businesses are asked report attempted fraud online or by calling 844-835-5322.

Reach Andy Owens at 843-849-3142.

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