Ameren, police warn of phone scam targeting businesses

If you own a small business in Champaign-Urbana and someone calls at a busy time of day, saying you better pay your power bill right now, hang up.

That's the advice from police and Ameren Illinois, which say businesses in Champaign and Urbana, and elsewhere in the state, are being hit by telephone scammers.

The scam is targeting "mom and pop" businesses and tends to hit at or near the lunch hour or other busy times, said Brian Bretsch, a spokesman for Ameren.

Here's what happens: The victim gets a call from someone saying the power bill at the business is overdue — usually by an odd amount of money — and that "if you don't make a payment within the next two hours, we'll shut your power off."

If the victim agrees to pay, he is instructed to get a prepaid money card and call back, giving the identification number from that prepaid card, which allows the scammer to transfer the money to a different account.

Here are the red flags to let you know it's a scam:

— Ameren won't demand payment within two hours. When an account is delinquent, Ameren always contacts the customer via mail, and the utility will work with customers to set up payment plans.

— And Ameren would never ask you to get a prepaid cash card to pay the bill, said Bretsch.

And here's what to do: Hang up, and call Ameren, or whatever provider the scammer claims to represent, to check your bill status.

No legitimate utility or similar business would ask customers to buy a prepaid cash card — and provide the PIN — for delinquent bills, said Champaign police Sgt. Dave Griffet.

Bretsch said Ameren has heard of about 10 such calls in Champaign-Urbana since Monday.

The scam victimized at least one Champaign business last week, according to Griffet.

The owner complied with the request, getting a cash card and providing the number, only to get another call demanding more money. That's when the victim realized it was a scam, Griffet said.

"They immediately called Ameren and were told their bill was in good standing."

He said police were able to make phone contact with the scammer in this instance, who said, "Basically, 'catch me if you can,'" Griffet said.

The prepaid cards make it hard to track the money to get to scammers, Griffet said.

"People are perpetrating these things from all locations. ... Unfortunately, we live in a day and age where there are a lot of people trying to scam people," Griffet said. "With the Internet and technology, it's very easy to fool people. There's a lot of people trying to do the right thing, and that's how (scammers) can do it."

Bretsch said scammers deliberately pick busy times, and smaller businesses.

"You're putting everything you have into your business. The last thing you want is to have your power turned off at a busy time."

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