Scam Alert: Lakeland Electric bill scam

Lakeland, Florida -- Local police want to alert neighbors and businesses about scammers pretending to work for local electric companies.

Lakeland Police say three separate restaurants have reported being called by someone who identifies themselves as a customer service agent for Lakeland Electric.

The scammer seems convincing based on these two reasons:

- The caller ID says it is Lakeland Electric's main line

- The scammer knows the customer's Lakeland electric accounts and how much they owe

The customers become suspicious when the caller does not know all of the addresses to the customers' accounts, if the customer has more than one address. They also because more suspicious when the customer would ask to call the caller back later and the caller gave them a "305" area code number.

The caller asked one restaurant owner to pay him a deposit on a bill he said the owner never paid and then he could pay the rest later. He asked the owner to purchase a Money Pak card at CVS or Walmart and then call him back with the debit card number.

At two other restaurants, the caller told the owners to meet him at City Hall with $1,000 cash. The owners then became suspicious and hung up.

Tim Busko, restaurant owner at Beef O' Brady's in Lakeland, argued with a caller who claimed to be a Lakeland Electric service agent who said he would turn off Busko's service if he did not pay him a deposit on a past bill he never paid.

"I found that specific bill and it says on the bill it was paid through my account draft that is automated," said Busko. "This guy was persistent! He said I had to pay him $650 now on the Money Pak card and then I could call back Monday and pay the remaining balance. And this was on a Sunday at 4:30 when he called. I tried calling him back later at the Lakeland Electric number and no one ever answered. It was an automated system. The caller gave me a "305" area code number to call him back on. The police said later that was a bogus company out of Miami."

Busko was upset because he was in the middle of a Sunday dinner rush, but he dropped everything to avoid his electricity going out.

"I was upset, but if for some reason this scammer was not a scammer then I was risking my power being turned off, which would mean: I'd lose $20,000 in food, my employees wouldn't be paid, I'd lose revenue and my customers would be upset that they could not come in to eat."

Busko went to Walmart to find out if they were ever used as "middle man" for making payments at Lakeland Electric.

"I am even embarrassed to admit I went to Walmart, but I had to make sure this guy was a fake and he was. The managers at Walmart said no and told me those Money Pak cards are like Visa debit cards. That's when I saw the red flags."

The scammer continued to call Busko and threaten to shut off his power if he did not pay him with the Money Pak card.

"I told him I knew he was a scammer, I told him I already called the city commissioner, and I told him if he turned off my power somehow I would throw him in jail, if he came to my restaurant I have video cameras and I would have him arrested and thrown in jail."

"They are using a machine to change that caller ID and we are working to learn how that is possible," said Lakeland Police Communications director Kevin Cook.

Cook also said that Lakeland Electric account information is public information under the Public Information Act in State Statute 119.

Lakeland Police recommend these scammer safety tips:

- Deal locally with folks you can meet in meet in person.

- Never agree to purchase gift cards, Money Pak cards, or Green Dot cards.

- Never wire funds

- Fake cashier checks and money orders are common. Banks will hold you responsible when the fake is discovered weeks later.

- Craigslist is not involved in any transaction

- Never give out financial information

- Avoid a deal involving shipping or escrow services and know that only a scammer will guarantee your transaction.


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