By MIKE CORN
The number of businesses being contacted by scammers posing as bill collectors for Midwest Energy is growing, and at least one business in the Hays area has fallen victim.
The scam is an ongoing and potentially costly ploy that involves bold, high-tech players targeting businesses, telling them they must make an immediate payment on their past due electric bill or face having it shut off, Midwest Energy spokesman Mike Morley said.
The calls have been going to businesses in Hays and Ellis, although Morley said businesses in Kinsley were targeted nearly a month ago.
So far, there have been "at least eight to 10 that I'm aware of," Morley said of the number of businesses contacted by telephone. "Those are just the people who have called us."
He's unsure if other businesses have been contacted, but haven't yet called to report it.
Morley said the callers are targeting a relatively wide array of businesses -- restaurants, auto repair shops and heating and cooling dealers.
That's when they tell the owners they have 45 minutes to make a payment on a past-due bill or risk having their electricity shut off.
Of course, the scammers are telling the business owners to either make a wire transfer or purchase a Green Dot card, load it with cash, and then provide an access number.
The amounts being sought aren't small, Morley said, ranging anywhere from $531 to $890.
"It just depends on the call," he said.
Already bold enough to make the call, Morley said they even leave a call-back number in case there are questions. He said that number has been (888) 641-0117.
That's a number also being used in electricity cut-off scams in Tennessee and in Michigan, according to published reports.
At least one local business owner called the number.
"He knew it was a scam, but he was playing along," Morley said. "Each time he called, he spoke to a different person."
And each time, the person answering the phone would answer simply as "customer service," he said.
When the business owner said he was calling about the Midwest Energy contact, the person on the phone quickly would identify themselves as customer representatives of the utility company.
They obviously weren't.
The concern for Morley is multi-faceted, worried people who rely solely on caller ID will be mislead, as the scammers can use technology to show the call is coming from the utility company.
But that's not how Midwest Energy operates, he said.
"We never call and threaten shutting off electricity," he said.
And there's a series of notices provided to people who are delinquent on their bills, with notices on monthly bills, through specific letters and perhaps a phone call sans the threat of power being shut off immediately.
If there's a call, Morley said, it's simply to ask the customer to either come in the office and make a payment or detail how a payment can be made online.
"These scammers are professionals," he said. "They know how to put on the pressure."
Morley is asking anyone who has received a call, but hasn't notified Midwest Energy, to do so. He wasn't sure if Hays police have been contacted in the latest round of calls.
Anyone with questions about their bill or their account are being asked to call the real Midwest Energy at (800) 222-3121.