LIPA warns customers of phone scam

A new scam targeting LIPA customers instructs them A new scam targeting LIPA customers instructs them to buy prepaid debit cards to immediately pay their utility bills and avoid a termination of service, the utility said in a statement posted on its website. (Nov. 20, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara, 2012

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Hundreds of LIPA customers have been targeted in a new phone scam threatening them with service termination if they don't immediately pay their bills using a prepaid debit card, officials said Wednesday.

Eleven LIPA customers fell for the scam and were fleeced out of thousands of dollars, said LIPA spokesman Mark Gross. Customers began calling LIPA this week to report the calls, and Nassau and Suffolk police are investigating the scheme, which LIPA said has affected other utility customers nationwide.

"When notified of scams like this one, we do our best to alert our customers . . . and protect them from these despicable people," Gross said in an email.

The scammers tell customers to buy a refillable debit card called "Green Dot MoneyPak" to pay their bills and then call them back. The caller sometimes tells customers their meter needs replacement. LIPA is responsible for meter maintenance.

The scammers then ask customers for the card's PIN, allowing access to the card's funds. LIPA said it does not accept payments through Green Dot or other prepaid cards.

"When someone calls and says give them the PIN number, do not give up that PIN number," a Nassau police spokesman said.

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A Yaphank bar manager narrowly avoided being a victim.

Vincent LaRocca, 34, a manager at the Red River In, said he got a call from a professional-sounding man Wednesday morning who identified himself as a LIPA representative and said LaRocca had to pay $2,000 in an hour using the Green Dot card or risk being shut off.

LaRocca challenged him, saying the bill was paid Nov. 7 and he wanted to speak to a manager. The representative knew his account number, last payment date and amount, and payment confirmation number.

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"I'm thinking this is legit," LaRocca said.

When the representative said he couldn't transfer the call and directed LaRocca to call another New York City area code number, alarm bells went off, he said.

He called a consumer protection agency and county Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley), who hooked him up with a LIPA official.

"Before . . . [the real LIPA official] even got off the phone with me, I could hear him talking to someone in the background saying, 'Get security now,' " LaRocca said.

Officials from Green Dot MoneyPak, a Monrovia, Calif.-based company, could not be reached. The cards are sold at national retailers.

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In 2010, the Better Business Bureau warned consumers that scammers were increasingly using the cards. "Anyone who requires an upfront payment with a Green Dot MoneyPak is very possibly operating a scam," the alert said.

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