Some business customers of Tucson Electric Power Co. were recently targeted in a scam in which callers demand payment of overdue bills under threat of having their power turned off.
Several local companies have received the calls - including one case in which the caller knew the exact amount of a business customer's most recent bill.
And another Southern Arizona utility, Willcox-based Sulphur Springs Valley Electric Cooperative, is warning customers of a similar billing scam.
TEP is aware of the calls and is investigating in cooperation with the Tucson Police Department, a company spokesman said.
Scotty Dean, owner of Ye Olde Clock Shoppe, said he got a call about a week ago from someone purporting to call on behalf of TEP, demanding payment of an overdue bill within 90 minutes or he would be shut off. The call sounded legitimate because the caller had the amount of his last bill, correct to the penny, Dean said.
But after the caller suggested that Dean pay by obtaining a prepaid cash card, Dean called TEP. He found out his recent payment check had already cleared, and a TEP representative said other businesses had received similar threatening calls. He also reported the incident to Tucson police.
Since the billing amount the caller quoted was accurate, Dean said he's worried that TEP's customer databases have been hacked.
"They knew my bill was late, and they knew what the amount of the bill was," Dean said.
TEP spokesman Joe Barrios said such late-payment scams are not uncommon, noting that last year a similar scam appeared to target Spanish-speaking residential customers.
But TEP has found no evidence thus far that the security of its computer systems has been breached, Barrios added.
"We have very robust security measures in place, and we are very concerned about our customer data," Barrios said.
Marilyn Smith, owner of longtime Tucson watering hole The Buffet Bar near the University of Arizona campus, said she got a similar call this week demanding a payment of more than $500.
When Smith went to a local Walmart to get a cash card to pay, a Walmart cashier warned her it was a possible scam and had her call TEP. Area Walmarts are authorized to process in-person TEP payments.
Smith said the Walmart employee helped her avoid a significant loss she could ill afford.
"It's summertime - it's hard enough for a small business," Smith said.
Though TEP sometimes makes courtesy calls to customers, the utility never arranges cash payments over the phone, Barrios said.
"We don't call people and say, 'you need to pay now or we will shut you off' - we just don't do that," he said.
Normally, he said, customers in arrears will get a pink disconnect notice - or if they are signed up for email billing, an email notice - well before the shut-off date, and customers can get payment extensions online or by phone.
Customers who receive suspicious billing calls should avoid giving out any information, hang up and call TEP at 623-7711, Barrios said.
Though similar fraudulent payment solicitations crop up from time to time, Barrios said TEP has noticed an uptick recently.
In another recent scheme, callers have demanded payment for replacement of a customer's electric meter, he said. Customers are never charged for replacement of meters, which are owned by TEP, Barrios said.
Jack Blair, chief member services officer for the Sulphur Springs Valley co-op, said the fraudulent calls to members appear to target only businesses. And while callers reportedly demanded specific bill amounts to the penny, the amounts didn't accurately reflect actual bills, Blair said.
if you're called
Tucson Electric Power Co. urges customers who receive suspicious billing calls to avoid giving out any information, hang up and call TEP at 623-7711.
Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at email@example.com or 573-4181.