Halifax restaurant owner nearly duped in power bill scam

Nova Scotia Power says it received 15 reports Friday from customers who were called and told they had unpaid electricity bills and were going to have their power cut off.

Nova Scotia Power has received 15 reports of fraudsters calling and threatening disconnection

Halifax restaurant owner Elias Fathallah says the scammers had an elaborate set-up, including an official-sounding phone number and answering machine. (Stephanie Blanchet/Radio-Canada)

A Halifax restaurant owner says he nearly fell victim to an elaborate phone scam that targeted more than a dozen other people in the province.

Nova Scotia Power says it received 15 reports Friday from customers who were called and told they had unpaid electricity bills and were going to have their power cut off. 

On Friday, Elias Fathallah was serving customers at his restaurant Caribbean Bliss when the phone rang around 11:30 a.m.

"Someone called Eugene told me he worked with the power company, and he was coming in 45 minutes to disconnect my power," he said.

In shock, Fathallah says the man gave him a 1-800 number and an extension, saying he had to contact them to keep his electricity running.

'Welcome to Power Nova Scotia'

"When I called the machine, it said 'Welcome to Power Nova Scotia,'" Fathallah said.

Another person answered who identified himself as a manager named Robert William.

He told Fathallah his online payments hadn't gone through since September, and he owed thousands of dollars.

Fathallah says when the scammer told him to go to a parking lot, he got suspicious. (Stephanie Blanchet/Radio-Canada)

"He was playing me well. He was so calm, so professional," he said.

Fathallah was worried he could lose thousands of dollars worth of food if his electricity was cut. He agreed to give the man his credit card information.

Asked to meet in parking lot with cash

Before he could finish spelling out the numbers to his credit card, the man interrupted, saying instead that Fathallah had to go to a spot on Oxford Street in Halifax and pay $1,020.09 in cash.

The man said he should arrive at the parking lot and call him for further instruction.

At that point, Fathallah hung up, promising to bring the cash.

Having just bought the restaurant in September, he first decided to call the previous owner who told him it could be a scam.

Fathallah then decided to call the number on his bill statement.

"I told her, 'What's going on? Why do I have a red flag on my account? I paid my bills on time.' And she said, 'What are you talking about? Your bills are paid ... we are not coming to disconnect your power."

Businesses being targeted?

Fathallah said the scammer seemed authentic, speaking with him for nearly 40 minutes and putting him on hold while he claimed to check with the workers who were coming to cut his electricity.

"He would interrupt me to tell me, 'OK, the guys are going to disconnect your power. They'll be there in 20 minutes, in 15 minutes," he said.

Elias Fathallah bought his business in September and says he thinks he might have been targeted as a new restaurant owner. (Stephanie Blanchet/Radio-Canada)

"He was making me more nervous."

Nova Scotia Power says the scammers  don't appear to target any specific location or group, but Fathallah believes he might have been chosen because he's a new restaurant owner.

"It's holidays, and businesses work more on holidays," he said. "You can't survive without power. I have four fridges, and four freezers. I have my ovens and stove."

Last laugh

Nova Scotia Power says no one has fallen victim to this scam so far, and Fathallah says he had the last laugh.

"After I knew it was a scam, he called me twice to see if I arrived to the address," he said.

"I decided to play him like he [played me]. I told him, 'I'm stuck in the traffic ... it's lunch time and I need 10 minutes please."

The scammer called back again and this time, Fathallah got his cook to answer, saying he was sprinting through the streets to meet him with the money in the parking lot.

"I don't know what was his plan when I had the cash with me," he said. "I don't know if somebody would be waiting there for me and have a gun or something like that to threaten my life … thank god, I didn't fall [for] that and I didn't go."

About the Author

Marina von Stackelberg

Journalist

Marina von Stackelberg is a CBC journalist based in Halifax. She previously worked for CBC Sudbury. Connect with her on Twitter @CBCMarina. Send story ideas to marina.von. stackelberg@cbc.ca