- Associated Press - Sunday, July 3, 2016

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) - Scammers who claim to work for Duke Energy and threaten to turn off power unless payment is made in minutes are targeting Asheville businesses.

At least five restaurants have filed police reports about the scam in two months. The scammers tell the business owner that there is some sort of problem with how they pay their bills, often through automatic sources.

Duke Energy has an alert on its website saying complaints about this scam have doubled in the past year and people who don’t speak English as a first language are disproportionately targeted.

The scammers say workers will cut off power in minutes unless money is put on a prepaid debit card, and usually call just before lunch when the owners are expecting a big crowd.

“I was pretty vulnerable and on a time constraint. I was begging and pleading,” Gypsy Queen Cuisine food truck owner Suzy Salwa Phillips told the Citizen-Times of Asheville (http://avlne.ws/295rnBZ ).

Phillips said the scammer told her that the credit card she used to pay her bill was rejected. She said she had just changed it after seeing strange charges.

“Everything lined up and it made sense. Plus, there was the humiliation of thinking I could not open because my lights were off,” she said.

Duke Energy never disconnects power without multiple notifications by mail and would not call a customer to warn them they were within an hour of having their electricity cut off, utility spokeswoman Meghan Musgrave said.

Duke Energy puts notices in every bill, does public service announcements and talks to police to try and stop the scam, Musgrave said.

The scammers are especially cruel going after small business owners with small profit margins, said Phillips, who has been running her business for eight months.

“I was heartbroken,” Phillips said. “I had just done an event the day before and had worked in the heat. All my hard work had gone out the window with just one phone call.”

The scammers are very sophisticated, said Roman’s Deli owner Roman Braverman.

“I hung up the phone and had zero suspicion this was a scam,” he said. “Through it all, they stayed very professional and calm on the phone. They’re really good at what they do.”

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Information from: The Asheville Citizen-Times, http://www.citizen-times.com

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