Local restaurants became the target of a phone-call scam in the past week.
Governor’s Pub, Bella II and Gigi’s Restaurant and Wine Lounge representatives said scam artists had detailed information about their electric bills, and that the callers threatened to shut off their service if they could not pay overdue bills over the phone.
In each case, the caller knew the amount of previous electric bills for their businesses, but the restaurant managers knew their bills had been paid and didn’t fall for the ploy.
Donna Benner, manager of the Governor’s Pub in Bellefonte, said it was the second time the restaurant had been targeted.
“I told them to give me the account number, and they responded that they didn’t have access to that information,” Benner said. “I told them I’d call them back, and when I checked our bills I called West Penn Power. We had no past-due balance.”
Ciara Semack, co-owner of Bella II, also in Bellefonte, said a male caller with a foreign accent, who identified himself as “Manny,” had the restaurant’s phone number and her cellphone number. He called her five times Friday, once calling himself “John.”
“They attempted to call, and they were persistent, but they also appeared to be concerned and caring,” Semack said.
“They would say, ‘You need your power, because you’re a restaurant.’ They made it seem like they wanted to help you. They’ll tell you that unless you’re able to drive to Clarion in the next hour you have to pay over the phone or get the power shut off,” Semack said. “I have all of my paperwork on location, and I asked them how they could shut it off when they had the money.”
When Semack gave the scam artist a confirmation number, the caller said he had no record of the payment. The caller directed Semack to go to a local Rite Aid or Dollar Store to purchase MoneyPak: Green Dot cards to pay for the bill.
Benner said the caller didn’t tell her how to pay the electric bill.
“They didn’t give me a payment option, but maybe it’s because they just didn’t get that far or I didn’t let them get that far,” Benner said. “I told them I’d check with West Penn Power and that I’d get back to them if it came to that.”
Cody Wolfe, manager of Gigi’s in Ferguson Township, said a caller gave him 30 minutes to pay an electric bill over the phone before a crew would shut off the restaurant’s power.
“A gentleman introduced himself and said he was from West Penn Power,” Wolfe said. “He said he was calling through disconnection services and said that we came across his desk for the power to be shut off.”
Wolfe stayed on the phone with the caller for 10 minutes before asking for a supervisor.
“The manager introduced himself as Manny, and he repeated everything the other guy said,” Wolfe said. “I told them I’d call the real West Penn Power, and he said no problem. I called West Penn Power and got through to billing information and gave them the number I had been given to call back.”
Wolfe and a West Penn Power representative called the number given to them by the scammers, but they were told it was an auto body shop. Wolfe said the people on the other line sounded Indian, the same accent as the scam artists.
Semack called the number back with her co-owner, Michael Albegiani.
“He wanted to poke the bear a little bit, and he was kind of rude to them because they were trying to scam us,” Semack said. “The gentleman admitted he was calling from Pakistan and that he doesn’t care about Americans and that all Americans need to suffer and go starving. He said Americans had all the money and he was doing it to feed his family.”
State College police Sgt. Todd Scholton said it is a recurring scam.
“That’s been going on for a while,” Scholton said. “It’s just a scam that circulates all over. It’s not just here. We do get calls on it, and obviously people pay their bills through a different means other than giving debit card numbers over the phone.”
Scholton said businesses and residents should ask for bills in writing.
“In regards to the payment and give-me-credit-card scams, don’t give your credit card numbers, date of birth or Social Security information over the phone,” Scholton said. “If you receive a call to pay your bill, ask them to give you the bill in writing and then call your bill collector.”