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Phone scams, and their sophistication, are on the rise, officials warn

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart and County Executive Steve Bellone unveil a PSA to help educate Long Islanders about a phone scam in which con artists impersonate PSEG employees. (Credit: James Carbone)

Expert phone scammers are on the rise, demanding not just payment for utility bills, but even obtaining $75,000 from a legal resident who still somehow feared being deported, county and PSEG Long Island officials said Wednesday.

“She’s told she’s going to be deported … and made these payments” in cash, in three amounts, just last week, Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart told reporters at a news conference held to provide new details on the scams percolating on Long Island.

While more information on that scam wasn't available, Hart said Suffolk police received 522 reports of scammers in the first six months of 2019, up from 340 in the same period last year. And the scammers got cash from 79 people, versus 37 in the earlier period, she said.

Nassau County police didn't immediately provide new statistics on the scams, but Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said the department had held "upward of 100" community meetings and had trained thousands of residents on how to protect themselves. "I urge all of our residents to always confirm who you are speaking to and call the police to report any suspicious calls," Ryder said.

Kim and David Sanders of East Islip, who own four dance studios on Long Island, recounted how they were traveling out of state when their receptionist received a call from someone posing as a customer service representative for PSEG Long Island who demanded to be paid or their lights would be shut off at 2 p.m.

That was about 12:45 p.m. on a Saturday — when there were 50 or so children at one of their studios.

“These guys are real good,” David Sanders said. “We actually did not fall for the scam — we are never in arrears and PSEG Long Island would never call if there was a crossover of checks.” 

They played the scam out, however — and Kim Sanders said even the prompts on the phone system the scammers used sounded authentic. Once the scammer demanded payment via a gift card — a tactic she recognized — it was over, she said. 

Scammers often demand payment via gift cards. Utilities, in contrast, don't accept them.

The scammers, officials said, target not just the elderly or recent immigrants, but also vulnerable businesses with perishable supplies, such as restaurants or firms that are behind in their bills. And they also strike during extreme weather — hot or cold — when no one wants to lose power.

All utility representatives wear proper uniforms and carry the correct identification when they make home visits, the PSEG Long Island officials said, adding they do not demand deposits for changing meters — which has become another scam.

“These scammers are growing more sophisticated in how they operate,” said County Executive Steve Bellone.

One of the telltale signs of a scammer is their urgency; they might threaten swift consequences if no money is received. “A key red flag is ‘immediately’ … you should stop right there,” Bellone said. “Before you do anything involving you turning over cash in any way, follow up, check with the authorities,” and call 311 if anything seems suspicious. 

Robert Vessichelli, asset protection specialist at PSEG Long Island, said the utility had received reports of 13,402 scams since August 2013. Victims made up about 5 percent of that total.

Explaining that the most effective way to stamp out these crimes is by educating the public, the officials played a recording of one of the scams targeting PSEG Long Island customers and have released a “revamped” public service announcement in English and Spanish.

They also cautioned against scammers pretending to be the IRS, or relatives who need to post bail.

PSEG Long Island president Daniel Eichhorn urged customers to set up text alerts with the utility so they know when a bill was created, when it was due, and when payment was received, and to use online billing. Customers can even consult the virtual assistant Alexa to see if their bill is late.

And with spoofers able to make it seem like they are calling from a legitimate business, Eichhorn said: “Don't trust Caller ID.”

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