Scammers targeting We Energies customers

By Karen Pilarski - Freeman Staff

Sept. 17, 2015

WAUKESHA- According to a Department of Justice crime alert, the number of pre-paid debit card scam attempts targeting We Energies customers in 2015 is over 700. Losses have accounted for $18,000 this year.

“This scam is nothing new. We had reports of this scam since 2012 and it comes in waves,”said Cathy Schulze, We Energies spokeswoman.

This month We Energies has had 80 customers report fraud activity. Schulze said luckily only two people fell victim and lost money, but one person is too many.

“The victim rate is low because we have done so much to raise awareness among customers,” she said.

The company has done social media postings on Facebook and Twitter. A warning was also put on the electric company’s website.

“The first thing people see when they log on to pay a bill is the warning,”she said.

To raise awareness, We Energies officials have talked with local law enforcement and the FBI, Better Business Bureau, and Wisconsin Department of Agriculture Trading and Consumer Protection. When the pre-paid card scam picked up steam, We Energies provided bill inserts in the mail.

Schulze said the scammers seemed to target Spanish-speaking customers for awhile.

“We did lots of communication early to raise awareness. We also did bilingual communications to Spanish radio stations and community centers,” she said.

She said they reached out to their corporate partners to be another line of defense, which has worked out well. They worked with Roundy’s Corporate Security so that they could raise awareness for their supermarkets. Their cashiers were trained to be on the lookout for people who were suddenly buying pre-paid debit cards in mass amounts.They would ask a customer why they were purchasing all these pre-paid cards and inform them of the scam.

“It was being alert and quick thinking that helped them stop people for buying cards,” Schulze said. 

The scammers threaten people with disconnection if they don’t send a certain amount of money via pre-paid cards. Schulze said, however, that people actually at risk for disconnection would be aware of it well before it happened.

“We would send a bill and notes in the mail. We would never make threatening calls saying we had a truck around the corner that would shut them off if they didn’t give us pre-paid cards, “ she said.

She said a caller indicating a truck should be a red flag. The caller should hang up and call We Energies directly to confirm account status, she said.

The vulnerability issue

The scam originally started with residential customers. Schulze said scammers have gone through trends such as going after business customers. Certain businesses like nail salons, auto body shops and restaurants have been targeted.

“The scams will die down and then pick back up. We don’t know how they decide or what database they use. They have even targeted pet kennels and vet clinics,” she said.

She said residents are more inclined to know what they owe. The problem with restaurants is when a person answers who isn’t in charge of the bills. If he or she is in the middle of the dinner rush it creates confusion and panic, she said.

It is suspected some scammers are from call centers overseas. Schulze reported a successful case in Elm Grove, where police tracked down a scammer who lived in Florida. He was charged and sentenced in Wisconsin for his crimes.

She said if you are concerned about your bill or experience a suspicious activity, call We Energies at 800-242-9137.