FOX 8 Defenders: Area business owners lose hundreds of dollars to utility scam

FOX 8 Defenders: Area business owners lose hundreds of dollars to utility scam

METAIRIE, LA (WVUE) - Emile Virgadamo's guard dogs protect his longtime auto repair shop on Airline Highway in New Orleans from burglars, but there was nothing they could do to guard him from a thief who stole hundreds of dollars from his business over the phone.

"He says I'm Dave with Entergy, and I'm 45 minutes away.  I got a disconnect notice.  You need to go to pay your bill now," Virgadamo said in explaining a recent phone call he received.

Virgadamo says he explained to the caller he had paid his electric bill, but the caller was persistent, threatening to shut off his electricity.  "He said not only you owed for the past two months.. you ain't paid," Virgadamo told us.  He said the caller knew his Entergy account number, which made him believable.

Virgadamo didn't want to risk his mechanics losing power so he followed the caller's instructions, drove to a nearby pharmacy and loaded $500 in cash onto a Moneypak card.  Once he did that, Virgadamo says he was instructed to call the scammer back and give him the PIN number on the back of the MoneyPak card, giving the caller instant access to the cash.  When he realized it was a scam, it was too late.

The FOX 8 Defenders have heard from small business owners, who like Virgadamo, got scammed, but for much more money.

"The total came to $1,960," Ron Duplechin said.  That's how much the co-owner of The Stuffed Crab in Metairie turned over to the scammers.  "We had actually just opened.  We had customers coming in and sitting down.  They had actually placed some orders," Duplechin explained.  He told us he worried if he didn't get the cash to Entergy, they'd lose power with a restaurant full of customers.

In Duplechin's case, the caller used similar tactics.  What's different, this consumer had actually received a legitimate disconnect notice from Entergy in the mail.  To avoid losing power on November 21, the day he was scheduled for disconnection, Duplechin says he paid his bill online a week beforehand.  Still, on the 21st he got a call from the scammers.

"It was an automated phone call.. (saying) 'This is Entergy, we're calling about your account, you're past due, today's your disconnect day.  A representative is on his way to your location to disconnect, you need to call this number,'" Duplechin said.

He called the toll free number on the message and explained how he already made a payment online.  "He (the caller) said you might have attempted, but the payment did not come through.  We didn't receive the payment, so you're still to be disconnected today, and you've got about 30 minutes before the rep gets there," Duplechin said.

Like Emile Virgadamo, Duplechin says he was directed to go to a nearby pharmacy, load money onto prepaid Moneypak cards, and call back with the card's PIN number.

We wanted to see if anyone would answer the numbers Virgadamo and Duplechin had called.  The number that Virgadamo called was no longer in service.  The number on Duplechin's caller ID from November 21 had an automated message that said, 'thank you for calling Entergy.. to hear your current balance, to make a payment or request payment arrangements, press one.."  We followed the prompts, waited on hold for several minutes, but no one ever answered the line.

"We do not call customers to threaten to disconnect.  We will mail a disconnect notice or provide one through their online accounts they provide.  We want them to hang up immediately and not even entertain whoever is on the other end of the line," Entergy Public Affairs Mgr. Toni Green-Brown said.

Virgadamo and Duplechin know now to hang up and call 1-800-Entergy, but the financial effects of the scam linger.  "I had to borrow money to make payroll the next day," Duplechin said.

Both consumers say they've filed complaints of theft with local law enforcement.  The Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office says its received a few similar complaints, but because many times these calls are coming from out of state or out of the country, it suggests consumers call the local FBI office.

The FOX 8 Defenders staffed with volunteers from the National Council of Jewish Women also field consumer complaints at 1-877-670-6397 or you can fill out an online complaint form.

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