BLOOMINGTON — The most common utility scam scenario involves a person who poses as power company representative, calls a customer, and threatens to disconnect service if the customer does not make an immediate payment.
Jenny Knuth, the manager of Ivy Lane Bakery at 405 N. Main in Bloomington, knows the drill.
“I’ve had it happen,” Knuth told representatives of Ameren Illinois on Wednesday morning. “I know all of the different scams and once, we had someone call here and I didn’t give them our account number. I knew the bills had been paid and it was just a scam.”
Knuth and Ivy Lane Bakery didn’t lose any money, but Ameren Illinois spokeswoman Marcelyn Love said small businesses are common targets because they yield higher dollar amounts than individual residential accounts.
The bakery store was one of about 40 businesses Ameren Illinois representatives visited Wednesday morning in downtown Bloomington as part of a comprehensive public education campaign the company is implementing this week. Businesses received scam awareness magnets and flyers.
“We have been making efforts over the years to continuously get the word out about utility scams,” she said. “We have seen an uptick over the years and it is a continuous effort to make sure our customers are aware of the possible scams.”
Recently, a customer in Bloomington received a call from someone claiming to represent Ameren's disconnect department. The caller advised the customer to purchase a Money Pak in the amount of $998.85 from a local grocery store to avoid immediate disconnection.
Since Ameren Illinois began tracking utility scam metrics in 2014, more than 4,000 customers have reported being contacted by a scammer, resulting in upwards of $140,000 paid out. In 2018 alone, more than 700 customers have been contacted to date, said Marcelyn Love, a spokeswoman for the company.
“There are various ways to scam a customer,” she said. “Sometimes people are dressed in fake uniforms or sometimes they call and identify themselves as an Ameren representative. They say if you don’t pay an x-amount of dollars within an hour, we are going to disconnect your service.”
Love said that businesses are often targeted because of the number of bills that come into a business and they may call at a busy time. They may also get into contact with an employee who is not an owner and convince them to send money or risk having the power disconnected.
Communications coordinator Kelly Turner said targets include small business owners, senior citizens and non-English speaking persons. They request immediate payment via pre-paid money card, credit card or bank account information.
They often indicate a utility worker is on the way to shut the power off.
“If you have been contacted by someone impersonating Ameren, hang up the phone or close the door and call Ameren at 1-800-755-5000,” she said. “Never give out personal information such as bank account numbers, user names or passwords, credit card information or Social Security numbers.”
About 12 volunteers broke into four groups to visit several of the downtown businesses.
“I appreciate the visit,” said Frank Hoffman, an attorney at 401 N. Main in Bloomington. “We don’t accept sales calls of any kind and my assistant screens everything, so normally, we don’t have much of a problem, but it’s nice that they are getting the word out.”