Detectives with Pinellas County Sheriff’s Economic Crimes Unit are encouraging residents to be on alert to a recent phone scam involving callers posing as Duke Energy employees.

Detectives say the scam appears to target Pinellas County residents. Five victims have been contacted since Nov. 12.

According to detectives, residents receive a phone call from someone claiming to be an employee of Duke Energy. The scammers have “spoofed" or programed their call to read as Duke Energy on the victim's caller ID, appearing to make the scam call that much more believable.

The caller informs the resident that they are past due on their electric bill and need to pay immediately to avoid having their electricity turned off.

Detectives say the caller instructs residents to go and purchase a gift card or a re-loadable debit card from a retail store. The caller provides a call back number and explains how the victim needs to call back and provide the card numbers from the card they purchased to satisfy the past due payment.

Detectives encourage residents to never make payment over the phone when they have received an incoming call and have not confirmed the call is legitimate.

Residents should never call the number back that is provided to them over the phone and should instead look up the correct phone number on their billing statement or online. Residents can then confirm if they have a payment past due and make sure payment goes to the actual company.

As a reminder, most scam phone callers will ask for the resident to obtain gift cards and call back with the gift card numbers.

Anyone who thinks that have been a victim of this scam or a similar one should call the Economic Crimes Unit at 727-582-6200.

Utility Scam Awareness Week

Better Business Bureau and Duke Energy, as well as other local utilities are joining forces to help shut down utility scammers by participating in the fourth annual Utility Scam Awareness Week, Nov. 17-23.

“Utility imposter scams continue to be a concern for Florida’s consumers and businesses. Better Business Bureau urges Floridians to report this scam to BBB Scam Tracker at www.bbb.org/scamtracker. Whether you are victimized or not, reporting can help to warn others.” said Karen Nalven, president/CEO of Better Business Bureau serving West Florida. “Many times, these cons involve high pressure tactics to act now with the end goal in taking your money, personal information and account details.”

The BBB 2018 Scam Tracker Risk Report found that of those who were victims of a utility scam, the average loss was $500.

Duke Energy is a founder member of the Utilities United Against Scams collaborative. The group consists of more than 140 gas, electric and water utility companies across the country and Canada.

Members of the organization work across the utility industry and with regulators, law enforcement and other telecommunications partners to help stop scams targeting utility customers.

UUAS has helped shut down nearly 5,000 toll-free phone numbers used by utility-impostor scammers.

From January through September 2019, more than 2,600 Duke Energy Florida customers in its 35 counties reported scam attempts. About 128 (or 5%) of these customers paid the scammers, which resulted in nearly $78,900 in losses.

BBB offers examples of common scam tactics and ways customers can protect themselves:

Common scam tactics

• Power disconnection threats: Customers may receive threats to turn off electric service – usually in less than an hour – if a large payment is not made.

• Immediate payment requests: Customers are asked to quickly purchase a prepaid debit card and provide the card information, which grants the scammer instant access to personal funds. Some scammers may also request a money wire.

• Calls that appear to be from your utility: Scammers may rig caller ID to make it look like the call is from a service provider. They have even duplicated the utility’s upfront Interactive Voice Response system, so when customers call back phone numbers provided by the scammer, it sounds like a legitimate phone number. Here’s a link to audio of these mimicked phone calls.

How to protect yourself

• BBB encourages customers who suspect a scam to hang up and call their utility company immediately at the phone number listed on their bill or website, followed by a call to the police and report the incident to BBB Scam Tracker at www.bbb.org/scamtracker to help warn others. Never dial the phone number the scammers provide.

• Do not pay over the phone if immediate payment is demanded to avoid disconnection. Customers with delinquent accounts receive an advance disconnection notification from utilities – never a single notification an hour before disconnection.

• Utilities never ask or require a customer with a delinquent account to purchase a prepaid debit card to avoid disconnection. Customers can make payments online, by phone, automatic bank draft, mail or in person.

How to identify utility workers conducting work on or near your property

• If customers question whether the person is a legitimate utility representative, contact the utility to verify their identity and reason for the visit.

• Always ask for identification. Employees of Duke Energy, Tampa Electric and Peoples Gas carry company-issued identification.

• In some instances, representatives from private companies may be working in your area on behalf of your utility as a contractor. If they do not have an official identification card, ask for their name and the reason for their visit, and then contact the utility to verify the information.

• Customers should not let anyone into their home unless they have verified their identity, or have scheduled the visit through the utility in advance.

• Customers should call the police immediately if they believe the person is an imposter.

Visit these websites for additional scam awareness resources, www.bbb.org/scamtips and www.duke-energy.com/stopscams.