February 21

Scammers pretending to be Central Maine Power hit Augusta business

Tina Charest pays $500 to scammers under threat of losing power at her Water Street restaurant.

By Craig Crosby ccrosby@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — The stink settled in quickly, shortly after Tina Charest had scurried to raise the money, even borrowing from a friend, to keep on the lights and heat at her restaurant. When she finally had time to stop and think about what had happened, all that was said, Charest realized something didn’t smell right. By then, it was too late. Her money was gone.

click image to enlarge

SCAM VICTIM: Tina Charest talks about the scammer who called about power bill for her business on Friday at Charlamagne’s Bar & Lounge on Water Street in Augusta.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Most common scams

The Maine Attorney General lists numerous scams on its website — www.maine.gov/ag — including the following:

• Medicare Scam: Many Maine seniors have received phone calls from someone claiming to be from Medicare or from the “health office.” The callers ask for the person by name and appear to be offering seniors some sort of supplemental health insurance or prescription coverage. Never give any personal information to anyone over the phone. Consumers with questions about Medicare can get more information from the Medicare offices at 1-800-MEDICARE.

• Grandparent Scam: An increasingly common scam involves a call from someone claiming to be the victim’s grandchild. The scammer will claim that there has been a mishap and money is needed immediately. Never wire money or give out bank info based on a telephone call.

• Fake Check Scam: Fake check scams often originate through email. Whatever the setup, the bottom line is if someone you don’t know sends you a check but wants you to wire money back, it’s a scam. Be skeptical. There is no legitimate reason for you to wire money back to someone who has paid with a check. If you think you are a victim of a scam you should: Contact the FTC 1-877-FTC-HELP; Contact your local post office; Contact the Maine Attorney General’s Office: 800-436-2131.

• Internet Phishing: Phishing is a term that means getting your personal information by deception and using the information to steal your identity. A common phishing scheme comes through your email and disguises itself as a bank that needs to update your personal information. No matter how legitimate the message looks, never send personal information over the Internet unless you initiate the contact.

“I can’t believe I fell for this,” Charest said. “I’m so mad.”

Central Maine Power earlier this month urged the public to be wary of scammers claiming to represent the utility company and demanding payment of a bill under threat of imminent disconnection.

“The callers have tried to work this deception mostly on restaurants, markets and other small businesses,” CMP spokeswoman Gail Rice said in a news release. “Some residential customers have also been targeted.”

Charest, who owns Charlamagne’s Bar & Lounge on Water Street, is one of the scammers’ most recent victims.

It started shortly after 5:15 p.m. Wednesday when Charest got a call from someone claiming to be a CMP employee. The caller, who knew Charest’s name and the name and address of her business, said a technician would be at the bar in less than an hour to shut off the electricity if Charest did not pay $500. The electric bill, which she said was a couple of weeks late, was already weighing on Charest. Now her mind raced to the prospect of watching her restaurant go dark while full of customers and employees.

“She said we’re shutting down power within 40 minutes,” Charest said. “I was panicking.”

She said she tried reasoning with the scammer, explaining the recent snowfall has kept customers away, making the budget tighter than usual. The scammer, unmoved, continued to demand the $500. Charest tried to pay with a credit card, but the scammer said she couldn’t accept that form of payment.

“I begged them to take a credit card,” Charest said.

The scammer instead directed Charest to a local business where she could buy a prepaid debit card, such as a Green Dot MoneyPak, to make a payment. Because it was after hours and Charest’s bank was closed, she borrowed $500 from a friend so that she could buy the debit card.

The cards, similar to an iTunes card, have hidden numbers that are revealed by scratching away a film. Anyone who knows the hidden numbers can drain money from the card. The scammer asked Charest for the revealed numbers, saying she needed the numbers to reserve the payment until Charest could give the card to the technician coming to turn off the power. At one point the scammer even transferred the call to a man claiming to be a technician to help arrange a meeting.

“They said it’s very important you hand him this card,” Charest said. “She was convincing.”

Charest gave the woman the card number and then went to the restaurant to pay the technician. She waited more than an hour for the technician, who never showed up.

Charest’s heart sank as she began to realize what had happened. The 800 number she had called back just earlier in the evening was now disconnected. The money from the prepaid credit card was already gone. Her worst fears were confirmed when she called CMP.

“I’m not even in disconnection status,” said Charest, who also works as deputy clerk for the city of Augusta.

According to CMP, customers can verify the identity of a CMP employee by asking for their employee number, then calling CMP at 1-800-750-4000 to verify the person’s identity and ask about the status of the account.

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