Rocky Point health-food store owner Drew Tyler said he panicked when he received a phone call Friday warning that his power was about to be turned off because of a back balance on his PSEG Long Island bill.
The caller, saying he was from the electric company, told Tyler a technician was on the way to install a new meter and would turn off the juice if the past due amount of $816.33 wasn't paid in full, via a prepaid debit card called a Green Dot Money Pak. Tyler said he rushed to a local store to buy one and called back with the number to authorize the payment.
The technician never came, and on Monday, Tyler discovered he was the latest victim of a utility scam PSEG has been warning customers about for months.
"When I called PSEG, they said, 'It's a swindle that's going on.' They are aware of it," he said, adding he'd complied because he thought the new utility was taking a more aggressive approach to overdue bills.
Since PSEG took over in January, 232 of its 1.1 million customers have fallen victim to the scam, said spokesman Jeff Weir, who noted PSEG security is investigating and working with local and national law enforcement. PSEG has notified customers about the scam through its website, emails and social media, and is considering putting warnings on its bills, Weir said.
Tyler said the store was busy that afternoon and he'd forgotten that he'd already paid the bill. "You get tired and you're just vulnerable," he said. "It's like getting mugged." He filed a police report Wednesday.
The store owner was particularly thrown by the first caller's knowledge of his current and past balances. Also, he said, calls from the supposed technician on his way to the store appeared on his caller ID as coming from LIPA.
Tyler's lesson to other PSEG customers who might get the same call: "Don't trust anyone in any way, shape or form."
PSEG in a warning on its website says it would "never require a customer to use one specific type of payment," such as the Money Pak.
At present, PSEG customers can pay bills only by check, money order or cash. That will change by year's end, when it works with Western Union to accept credit and debit cards for bill payments, PSEG said.
Also, customers who face disconnection for nonpayment get a written notice on their bill at least 10 days before power is shut off.
The company recommends customers call PSEG to confirm the legitimacy of any payment requests at 800-490-0025.
Weir said the incident was "unfortunate. We can look into it and help him and give it to our security and investigators."