By Michelle Graff
Santa Monica, Calif.--One recent afternoon around 2 p.m., Evelyn Guerboian, who owns Readers Fine Jewelers with her husband Eddie, received a call from a panicked employee.

Southern California Edison called, the employee said, and they are going to shut the lights off by 5 p.m. tonight if the store doesn’t pay its overdue electricity bill. 

A business owner for nearly 40 years, Guerboian was almost certain she was up to date on the store’s utilities but returned the call anyway, thinking that perhaps one bill had slipped through the cracks.

She said when she called back the number left by alleged utility company employee, she was told her store owed $1,100. That is when she knew it was a scam. She might have missed one payment, but Guerboian was certain she wasn’t that far behind on the store’s bills.

The Santa Monica jeweler is one of thousands of small business owners in southern California currently being targeted by scam artists who call pretending to be the utility company and demanding immediate payment via the purchase of prepaid debit cards.  

Now, Southern California Edison, or SCE, is asking Guerboian to help spread the word to jewelers nationwide, as the culprits are likely to try their scam in other states. Bank of the West recently posted a blog giving business owners four tips for avoiding these types of scams, stating that “similar scams have been noted around the country.” 

According to an alert distributed by the SCE, the scam artists have targeted more than 8,000 of its customers since December 2012 and cheated them out of more than $250,000. About 90 percent of their targets are small businesses--markets, hair salons, car washes, family-owned jewelry stores, etc.--and the vast majority of those are owned by Hispanic, Asian and Middle Easterners for whom English might be a second language. 

Lately, those perpetrating the scams have been “double-“ and even “triple-dipping.” They are calling back those sucked into the scam and telling them the payment didn’t go through and to resend the money a second, or even a third, time. 

The utility company said that while it is working closely with local and federal law enforcement agencies, the scam is difficult to stop because the majority of the calls come from outside the United States. 

In the meantime, they offer the following tips for small business owners, including jewelers, in southern California.

--Pay attention to the number. The scam artists often use “off” phone numbers such as 888 or other combinations. Anytime the SCE contacts customers, the call will come from an 800 number. Also, the scammers will give an extension number when leaving their callback digits; SCE does not use extension numbers. 

--Listen to the content of the call. SCE said it does not threaten customers with service shut-off for two weeks. The company would not, as the caller did in the Readers Jewelers case, call at 2 p.m. to say the electricity would be shut off in three hours. Also, SCE does not accept Green Dot or Vanilla reloadable debit cards. 

--Note the timing of the call. SCE said it does not call its customers on weekends or holidays. 

--Don’t give out any vital information over the phone. “These imposters are great fishers of information,” said Arthur Chico, who works for SCE Corporate Security. “You never know who they are, and imposters will use that information against you.” 

At Readers, Guerboian, who has owned the shop with her husband for 38 years, said after getting off the phone with the scammers, she immediately checked her bill online, which confirmed her suspicion that it was a trick. Her account was current. 

Other business owners have not been as wise, though. The jeweler said she knows of a nearby coffee shop and bakery that were taken in by the call. 

Guerboian said she told SCE she had received one of these calls and now is spreading the word to other jewelers through industry organizations such as Jewelers of America. 

In southern California, business owners who receive a suspicious call should contact the SCE’s call center at 800-655-4555. It is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

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