Village of Menomonee Falls — The largest volume of scam calls in We Energies history happened Thursday, Jan. 19, across Menomonee Falls and Milwaukee County, when 128 phone calls were placed demanding money, or the scammers alleged, We Energies would cut their power.
Starting at 10 a.m. and continuing into the evening, scammers were targeting area businesses and some residences.
Three We Energies customers paid the demands, which ranged anywhere from $500 to $1,000. These scam victims were all businesses in Milwaukee County.
The following day, the Germantown Police Department reported around 3 p.m. that area businesses were receiving the same scam calls.
Police Chief Peter Hoell said while the department did not keep a record of the number of scam calls reported that day, at least two Germantown businesses were affected, but he does not believe anyone paid the scammers.
We Energies confirmed that on Friday, Jan. 20, more than 70 additional scam calls were reported across its southeastern territory, and the scam was spreading to Germantown, Kenosha, Racine and other areas in Menomonee Falls and Milwaukee.
After the scam continued through the end of last week, the total number of calls in this case exceeded 200.
A sophisticated scam
The scammers in this case were very well-informed about a variety of factors; this is why they knew to target businesses during the winter months, said Brian Manthey, manager of media relations for We Energies.
"What we’ll often see is residents will be targeted more in the spring and fall months because — and an important reminder — is that there are no residential customers that we disconnect in the course of the winter," Manthey said. "There’s the winter utility shutoff moratorium, so if a resident gets a call in the middle of January saying 'we’re going to cut off your power if you don’t pay up,' that is illegal and we would not do that. Residential customers especially should be leery of any call that comes in saying that. Business customers are different; there are still disconnections that would occur in the winter, so that’s why they’re targeting businesses now."
Manthey said if any We Energies customer is behind in payments, they would receive a number of communications from We Energies, but the phone calls would be asking to set up payment plans, not requesting money over the phone.
Not only did the scammers sound sophisticated while speaking with customers, but also, when a customer called the scam number back, the We Energies greeting would actually play because they recorded it from the We Energies' line, according to Manthey.
We Energies scam history
We Energies is the largest utility service in the state with the most customers, and its area of service covers the southeastern Wisconsin territory.
Last year, We Energies customers received 800 scam calls throughout the course of the entire year.
"The scammers were pretty busy and they knew they were going to blitz the area with these calls. We’ve never had anything close to 100 scam calls in one day," Manthey said.
Since the advent of social media, We Energies has used its social media accounts, namely Facebook and Twitter, whenever a scam of any magnitude occurs. On Jan. 19, they let customers know on Twitter (@we_energies) within a couple hours after the first phone calls were placed, but almost immediately after customers first reported the scam to them directly.
Preventing the scam
Investigators believe the suspect(s) appear to originate from out of the state, and even, out of the country, so it is virtually impossible to stop them from placing the calls.
"It’s very difficult to stop this because the scammers are sophisticated," Manthey said. "It takes vigilance on the part of the customer. We try to do the best we can to get them as much information as we can about the calls that do come to our customers.”
We Energies has partnered with area grocery and drug stores to alert customers to the scam when they purchase pre-paid debit cards, which the scammers specifically demand so that the exchange of money is difficult to trace.
Local Walgreens, Pick n' Save and Walmart locations often ask customers if they plan to use the pre-paid card to pay a utility bill; if so, employees are trained to info them of a scam potential and advise them to call the utility service's legitimate phone number to make sure.
Manthey reminded customers if they are unsure about the legitimacy of the phone number to call the number listed on their energy bill.
“We think each time this happens, we make inroads to getting more and more people saved from falling victim to this because they are not only sophisticated scammers, they know when to call and they know, for example, to call a restaurant late in the afternoon, when they're about to serve 500 to 1,000 people," Manthey said. "You can see they prey on people in very vulnerable times."
To report a phone call scam to We Energies, call the customer service line at 1-800-242-9137.