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Sophisticated PNM scam takes couple for $1,000

scammedA Placitas couple is out $998.05 in a utility scam that was “carried out flawlessly,” and what happened is a lesson to all of us when a caller threatens dire circumstances if you don’t pay up quickly.

“I was so taken aback by the whole thing,” said the husband, adding that the scammers established “absolute credibility. I want them in jail.”

While scams involving PNM aren’t unusual – the utility received 116 reports just in the last month – this one is “something we don’t come across very often,” said spokeswoman Shannon Jackson.

It was the Friday before Labor Day weekend when the Placitas couple got a phone message from a supposed PNM employee, saying service would be cut off in 30 minutes unless they called back.

They called the supposed number to PNM, and the scammers told them they owed $498.05. That was the exact past due balance the couple had just paid to PNM, lending much more credibility to the scam. The couple took the time to check the real PNM website and found that a disconnect banner was still displayed on their account.

The couple was told that despite their payment, a subcontractor already had been ordered to do shutoffs over the long holiday weekend, and there was no way to stop the disconnect unless they paid. The couple was to do so by cash card within an hour, or they would be left with no electricity on a long and very hot weekend.

However, the employee said he would waive an additional $500 reconnect fee. Nice guy, huh?

The couple drove to Bernalillo, got their money card and rushed back to provide the number on the back.

End of story? Not yet.

They soon after got another call from the “employee’s” supervisor who said “Mr. Ramirez” should not have waived the reconnection fee. Therefore, he said, the couple owed another $500. They made yet another trip to Bernalillo, bought another gift card and called back to relay the numbers.

It wasn’t until the next day that a friend convinced them they had been scammed. Total loss: $998.05.

The husband said he and his wife are “intelligent people (who) have our own business,” and have been targeted by numerous scams over the years – none of which they ever fell for. This one was persuasive, though, because the scammer used the exact dollar figure they had previously owed and because the phone number they were told to call back had an “extensive menu” that sounded official.

It turns out it’s something of a mystery as to how the fraudsters got the couple’s PNM account information, Jackson said. In fact, a similar scenario was reported by a Santa Fe customer over that same holiday weekend.

She said PNM’s security team “reports no signs of any breach of information.” In the few such cases that have been reported, there did not seem to be any common threads with respect to the customers’ accounts or their payment method – online, snail mail or in person.

Jackson said one possibility is that the victims’ PNM bill was stolen out of their mailboxes. Or it could be they were subject to “social engineering,” in which the scammer gives a ballpark figure and the customer jumps in to volunteer the exact amount. PNM is not sure, Jackson says.

As for the realistic PNM-sounding phone system, Jackson says imposters call PNM and record the utility’s “on-hold music or pre-recorded messages,” and then use them on a line they set up to trick customers.

According to PNM, here are some things to remember, for the typical utility scams and those more unusual versions:

• PNM never disconnects power over the weekend or on holidays.

• While PNM does phone customers who are in danger of disconnection, it will never demand payment by gift or cash card. Also, it gives you plenty of warning on its bills before cutting service. However, if you have any doubt about whether it’s PNM calling, just hang up and call the number on your bill to check your status.

Jackson says customers should report these scams to the FBI at www.ic3.gov and to PNM at 888-DIAL-PNM.

Contact Ellen Marks at emarks@abqjournal.com or 505-823-3842 if you are aware of what sounds like a scam. To report a scam to law enforcement, contact the New Mexico Consumer Protection Division toll-free at 1-844-255-9210.

 

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