Utility scam hits Ashland residents

About a dozen Ashland residents have received calls saying their utilities will be disconnected unless they pay their bill immediately via phone, wire or money order.

Those who reported the scam to the city did not fall victim to the scheme, in which the caller demanded payment by credit card over the phone, a money order from Rite Aid or — the preferred method — money wired by Western Union, police Chief Terry Holderness said.

"No one legitimately calls you and asks for a credit card number," Holderness said. "You should never give that number to anyone. People (who get such calls) call the Electric Department and they tell customers it's not true."

The calls came from Portland or out of the country, he said.

"If you're stupid enough to give out your card number, they are happy to use it" until the accounts are flagged and closed, he said. "But if you wire money, it's just gone.

"We have no idea who they are. It could be local crooks. It's a cottage industry now. A lot of calls are from foreign countries, Asia, Nigeria, Eastern Europe. It's relatively cheap to call now."

Some of the scammers are tied to organized crime and sometimes will attract federal investigators, Holderness said, but "we don't have the resources to follow them if it's out of the country. These scams are really common."

Potential victims so far have hung up on the scammers and called the city, said Ann Seltzer, management analyst. Information on scams is collected by police and sent to a fraud line of the FBI, she said.

"We don't know where they get the phone numbers or if the scam has stopped," Seltzer said.

Bryn Morrison, customer service coordinator for the city, said those who receive such calls are encouraged to report them to police.

The city stresses to customers to "never send money in response to a phone call and never provide your credit card number," Seltzer said.

A city news release said, "Customers have reported the caller indicates that their previous payment did not go through and asks for the credit card information to process the payment. When customers question the caller, the caller either hangs up or scrambles to answer questions."

The scam has been going on for about three weeks, with one complaint as late as Thursday, Seltzer said, but the city knows of no case in which a resident fell victim.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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