SANDPOINT — Utility customers beware: there’s a sophisticated scam going around like a nasty virus, and they sound convincing.
The scammers have targeted several local businesses, and nearly succeeded with one Wednesday, when Panhandler Pies received a call at lunchtime. The polished, professional-sounding caller, who claimed to be from Avista Utilities, informed an employee the businesses account was past due. If they didn’t receive full payment in 30 minutes their power would be disconnected.
The employee contacted owner Rex Williams and gave him the number the caller had provided. Williams called in a confused panic and was connected to a standard-sounding, professional Avista phone tree. He finally connected with a person.
“I told them I had been with them for 25 years. This was a mistake,” Williams said, concerned about his customers sitting in his restaurant. “This is my lunch hour.”
Williams asked to speak to a supervisor.
“I’m the only one who can really help you,” the person told him. It was too late, letters and emails had been sent.
“Since when?” Williams said.
“The disconnect order is out. We can’t stop it,” the representative insisted.
Williams was focused keeping his business operating. He even offered his credit card number, but the representative declined, and instead instructed Williams on how to pay his bill and keep the lights on. He had to hurry — the clock was ticking.
“Here’s what you need to do,” Williams was told. “Go you your bank and withdraw $2,400, because we only take cash.”
He was told to take the cash to the nearest Safeway and purchase a PayPal card.
Desperate, Williams did as instructed. Things were moving fast — he was caught up in the sudden slip stream of keeping his business operating.
“I’m pretty worked up,” Williams recalled, thinking, “this is crazy.”
He arrived at Safeway, cash in-hand and ready to pay his bill. At the customer service counter, with the so-called Avista representative on the phone, he simultaneously spoke with a Safeway employee about purchasing the card. Williams was told the card he wanted was not longer available.
The employee, Charity Hadley, Safeway’s customer service manager, had seen this before. She asked Williams what he wanted the card for, recalling that Williams seemed anxious and nervous, and unsure what to do.
“The more questions I asked I was sure this was a scam,” Hadley said.
Williams remembered the skeptical look on the Hadley’s face. She sensed something was amiss.
“You could see it in her eyes and on her face,” Williams recalled.
“Let’s talk to Avista,” Hadley suggested. “He said he was talking to Avista.”
She convinced Williams to hang up, and found the utility company’s toll free number in the phone book. Williams dialed and stepped outside.
“Is there a work order to shut off my service?” he asked when an Avista customer service representative took his call.
He was informed that his account was current. Williams explained his odyssey to the Avista representative
“No, we don’t work like that,” he was told.
Avista’s senior communications manager, Debbie Simock, confirmed that the utility does not employ such ruthless techniques.
“It’s important for customers to know that Avista doesn’t make calls of this nature,” Simock said of delinquent customer accounts. “We try to reach them up to seven times before a disconnection.”
If at anytime during that process a customer makes payment arrangements, the process is stopped, she said.
“We never call and tell people that their power will be shut off in 30 minutes,” Simock said.
After verifying with Avista that his account was in good standing, Williams returned to Safeway and thanked Hadley for her help.
“You were right: this was a scam,” he told her.
“I look back and think: what was I thinking?” Williams said. “He had me step by step.”
After thanking Hadley, he did two things. First, he contacted the Sandpoint Police, who told him the scam “had been going on for months,” Williams said.
Then Williams called the scammers back.
“God loves you,” he told the would-be thief on the other end of the line. “He doesn’t like what you’re doing, but the good news is you can recover from these things.”
“What?” the caller said.
But Williams, a long-time member of the Westmond Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Cocolalla, is, after all, human.
“If we could meet in person, I probably wouldn’t be so nice. I’d probably get physical,” he told the man.
“He said a few things and hung up,” Williams said.
“No is my favorite word right now,” he said.
Williams sees the experience as both a cautionary tale and a blessing.
“God puts people in your path to prevent you from doing certain things,” he said.
Sometimes all it takes is a little faith, hope — and Charity.