In the past six months, over two dozen people across Canada have lost an average of $1,400 each to scammers who pretend to be from a utility company and threaten to turn off power over unpaid bills, according to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.
Vancouver businesswoman Vera Eftovska is one of the most recent to fall victim. She lost $2,500 last week after following the instructions of a man who she thought was a BC Hydro representative.
She got a call last Tuesday, during the morning breakfast rush at her Denman Street café. The caller said he was from BC Hydro and he demanded she pay her overdue bill, or she would lose power in 30 minutes.
She said it was a lot for her to pay, but losing business was too big of a threat so she agreed to pay the amount.
She was given a number to call back, and when she did it seemed legitimate.
"It was connected with a message saying, 'Welcome to BC Hydro,' so it was really easy for me to believe that I'm talking with the right person," she said.
The caller then said a regular credit card or bank transaction would take too long to go through, and that she needed to pay with a prepaid PayPower Visa card. He directed her to the nearest prepaid card seller, in this case a Safeway store.
Once she had the card, the caller got her to read him the 10-digit code on the back of the card, which gave him immediate access to the cash.
When Eftovska tried to call the phone number she'd been given back, the number was no longer in service.
Prepaid cards a red flag
Dan Williams, a spokesman with the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, warned that using prepaid cards is much like sending cash, and as soon as you give the code on the back to somebody, they can access the cash within minutes.
"There is no reason why you'd be paying with prepaid card to a stranger. If someone's steering you towards prepaid cards, there's a 99.9 per cent chance it's a scam, especially if they are presenting themselves to be a government agency or institution," he said.
The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre tallied 106 instances of similar attempted hydro bill scams in Toronto, Quebec, B.C. and Manitoba since May of this year, with at least 27 people falling prey and losing an average of $1,400 each.
Williams said the targets often seem to be small restaurants or independent businesses that would be financially hurt by a day without power.
"They think everything is in good order and then, for whatever reason, they check and realize they've been duped," he said.
BC Hydro did issue a warning about this scam on its website on Sept. 4, but Eftovska said she wishes the warning was more prominent.
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