Scammers putting a new twist on familiar We Energies spoofing scheme

Posted at 6:15 AM, Nov 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-26 11:49:27-05

If your cell rings and the caller ID says "We Energies," you may answer it just like a Brookfield woman did. She asked us not to reveal her identity.

"I got this phone call one morning and they said 'Well, we're going to be turning your power off because you haven't been paying your We Energies bill,'" the woman told us.

Turns out, it was a utility scheme. The imposters spoofed We Energies' phone number and then told the woman to buy $17,000 worth of gift cards at gas stations throughout southeast Wisconsin.

To avoid suspicion, they had her go to four different banks and she says they walked her through it all step by step.

"Then you go to your car and you scratch the number off and give us a call back and tell us what the number is and that will take care of some of your bill," the woman said.

"I didn't really know what I was doing, so I went ahead and did it because I was afraid I'd have my power turned off, and being an elderly person I did what they said," she explained.

But after talking with her trusted circle, she stopped buying the cards and instead went to the Better Business Bureau seeking help.

"She had two plastic baggies with her. One was filled with cash and the other was filled with gift cards," said Lisa Schiller with the BBB.

Inside the bag was about $16,000. The BBB had police escort the woman back to the bank to deposit it.

Schiller says this case happened in December of 2019. Now, she says, criminals are switching up how they do business.

"I think what is a little different this year is the payment methods that the scammers are requesting," Schiller said.

She says they prefer to get their money electronically via mobile payment apps, online payment systems, or even cryptocurrency -- anything that's hard to trace.

She stresses you should never pay your utility bill those ways and also remember a utility company won't call demanding payment.

"We Energies is not going to call you and tell you that you will be disconnected if you don't pay immediately," Schiller said.

"We will never threaten you or try to scare you into making a payment," says John Zaganczyk, We Energies Senior Vice President of Customer Service.

"If you think a scammer is targeting you, hang up. It's not rude; it's safe," he said.

The BBB says there are variations of the scam where con-artists call restaurants during busy dinner hours and threaten to disconnect their power if they don't pay immediately. Additionally, the BBB reports some scammers target Spanish-speaking consumers by speaking in Spanish.

Police told the Brookfield woman her chances of getting her money back weren't good. It was a hard lesson to learn.

"I advise anybody and elderly especially, don't answer your phone if you don't know the number or person," said the woman.

The BBB offers additional ways to avoid utility scams here.

You can also report scams to BBB Scam Tracker here.

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