Scammers threaten to turn off business’ lights, gas

Police, business owners warn about callers that claim to be utility companies
Scammers threaten to turn off business’ lights, gas
Dumpling Haus

You can’t easily sell satellite dishes or cable networks without power, but that’s what one of Luis Montoto’s part-time employees thought he was facing.

Montoto, who owns La Movida on Park Street, said the employee received a call in March when Montoto and his wife were on vacation. The man on the other end said the electricity would be shut off within 20 minutes if the employee did not go to the nearest drug store, purchase prepaid cards and forward on the numbers for those cards so they could cash them in for outstanding bills.

“Our employee was trying to do us a favor by not having us disconnected,” Montoto said. “And before we left on vacation, we had already paid our power bill. Unfortunately, these people know how to handle themselves.”

Montoto said the employee followed the scammer’s directions, costing his business almost $900.

“We actually got a call the following day saying the payment had not gone through, so that’s how bold they are, that’s how brave they are,” Montoto said. “They actually called back and said, ‘You know, your payment didn’t register, it’s not in our system, so we’re going to have to go through this again.'”

In the Hilldale Mall, Jenny Yin went through a similar situation.

The owner of Dumpling Haus was called back into the restaurant a couple of months ago when her husband got a strange call. When she answered, Yin was told crews were on their way to turn off the gas in her kitchen.

“They told me, go to the nearest drug store, buy those money cards, those have a code number. After I give them the code number, they have money,” Yin said.

Yin rushed to the closest Walgreen’s, ready to buy more than $1,000 in prepaid cards. Luckily, the cashier said she could not legally sell that quantity, and instead called police.

“When she called the police, I called MG&E to find out I paid on time, I don’t owe them any money. So now I know, it’s a cheat, it’s a fraud,” Yin said. “I felt like, ‘Oh my gosh, I almost lost my money.'”

Madison police spokesperson Joel DeSpain said the scammers are typically tough to track down. They’re typically calling from international numbers that are not easily traced.

In addition, DeSpain said the criminals seem to be working sporadically, specifically targeting Spanish-speaking business owners or people who immigrated to the United States.

“It’s sad for me more than frustrating because I hate to see good, hard working people be scammed out of the money that they’ve worked hard to earn,” DeSpain said.

DeSpain wasn’t sure how the scammers are accessing victim’s numbers, but said no utility company will ask someone to make a payment by loading cards at a drug store or big box store.

Yin said she blocked the 800 number that called her business with the scam, and now that she’s been through it, she will know to check before rushing to pay someone.

“Next time, I won’t get in a panic,” Yin said. “I will make sure I’ve paid everything on time. I don’t owe anybody money, and nobody can shut off my business.”