Florida is ranked number one in the nation for fraud, with Tampa Bay at the epicenter, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Now it appears scammers have gotten even sneakier during the pandemic.
On Monday, August 3, Town Shores resident Carol Sharp contacted the Gabber with a report of a phone call she received from “Duke Energy” concerning an overdue bill. They told her they were calling because her bank had apparently stopped automatic payments due to COVID-19.
Who calls the local newspaper about an overdue bill? A very clever lady.
Sharp reported that the gentleman on the phone was very convincing, but his request was a little strange. He told her she had to go to Dollar General and get gift cards and mail them to him to bring her account up-to-date – to the tune of $1000.
Duke Energy has long been aware of the gift-card imposter scam, warning their customers since 2016. The COVID-19 twist is simply the latest version.
A few things to note if you get a phone call similar to this: no reputable business will demand payment via a gift card or prepaid credit card. Duke Energy does not request payments over the phone without alerting the customer by mail first.
“Gift cards are a popular and convenient way to give someone a gift. They’re also a popular way for scammers to steal money from you,” says the FTC on their website. “That’s because gift cards are like cash: if you buy a gift card and someone uses it, you probably cannot get your money back. Gift cards are for gifts, not payments. Anyone who demands payment by gift card is always a scammer.”
The number of fraud victims in the Tampa Bay area is alarming, and the sophistication and manipulation involved in some of these scams can be scary for an uninformed person.
“Modern scam artists use increasingly sophisticated and intimidating tactics. They thrive on changes in the environment and look for opportunities to take advantage of unrest and uncertainty,” says Duke Energy’s website. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen many scammers become more creative and aggressive. The only way to protect yourself is to be vigilant, stay informed and guard your personal information.”
According to Gulfport Police Department’s Volunteer Coordinator Jim Wright, knowledge is the best defense.
“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” said Wright. “Reach out to someone you trust.”
Wright encourages residents with concerns to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 727-893-1022.
The FTC urges all residents to report about any type of scam or fraud you detect at ftc.gov/complaint, or call toll-free: 1-877-FTC-HELP. You can also read tips from this year’s Fraud Protection forum hosted at the Catherine Hickman Theater in February here.