Phone scam targets California dental practice

Phone scams, both automated calls and calls made by live people, are affecting individuals and businesses in California, including dental practices.

In a scam reported as early as February that appears to be ongoing, criminals are posing as Pacific Gas and Electric Co. representatives who either demand immediate payment of utility bills they claim are past due or attempt to cross-sell products and services, such as solar power.

Initially centered in the San Francisco Bay Area, the phone scam began to spread north and south, impacting the greater Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. The fraudulent calls have now reached most of the state.

Kerry Carney, DDS, who co-runs a practice in Benicia, said that her practice was twice targeted by the fraudsters, most recently in early May.

“Receiving a call like this can be very alarming to staff, and it can really throw the office into a panic,” Dr. Carney said.

Because the criminals threaten to turn off a utility customer’s power, dental office staff who are caught off guard or are unprepared may fall victim to the scam, agreeing to pay the amount demanded to maintain power so they can continue providing care to their patients. At the very least, such calls can cause disruption in the front office, with staff frantically checking their utility accounts and payment records.

The scam ramped up during tax season, as the criminals lured individuals with promises of tax refunds related to their utility bills. Calls even falsely registered as a PG&E phone number on recipients’ caller ID displays, and callers frequently demanded that payment be made via prepaid cards. Reports from customers prompted PG&E to issue a news release that stated in part, “Customers should never purchase a prepaid card to avoid service disconnection or shutoff. PG&E does not specify how customers should make a bill payment.”

Fortunately for Dr. Carney’s office, staff ended the call without any financial harm done to the practice, but at least one California business — a restaurant in Chico — lost $2,500 to the scam. The business owner suspected something was wrong when the fraudsters called a second time and demanded more money, according to an Action News Now report in March. Her subsequent call to PG&E’s customer service department confirmed her suspicion — the business was current on its utilities payments and PG&E had not contacted her to demand payment.

PG&E advises customers who receive a call from a scammer threatening “immediate disconnection or shutoff of service without prior notification” to hang up, then call PG&E at 800.743.5000.

CDA Regulatory Compliance Analyst Teresa Pichay points members to the Federal Trade Commission’s guidance on phone scams, which explains how to identify such scams and how to handle them. The FTC also has guidance on phone spoofing, which occurs when callers falsify a telephone number that appears on a caller ID display. The guidance warns individuals to use caution if they are being pressured to immediately take action or provide information and to “never give out personal information,” such as account numbers, in response to unexpected or suspicious calls.

Phone spoofing is generally a violation of FCC rules. If the caller claims to represent a company or government agency, the guidance states, “hang up and call the phone number on your account statement, in the phone book or on the company’s or government agency’s website to verify the request.”

Robocall scams increasing

Robocalls — automated calls with prerecorded messages — are increasingly replacing live callers. They might be calls that attempt to market a legitimate product or service or they might be attempts to scam an individual or business, but whether the intent is to telemarket or to scam, most robocalls are illegal unless the receiver of such calls has given the caller permission to make them.

The New York Times in May reported that IRS and utilities scams were among the top robocall scam categories in March. These calls are increasing “because they are cheap and easy to make,” according to the article “Yes, It’s Bad. Robocalls, and Their Scams, Are Surging.” In a new twist, robocallers have taken to “neighborhood spoofing,” whereby they use local phone numbers that might trick a recipient into answering the call. Such calls can inundate mobile phones at all hours. The article quotes a hand surgeon who says he has “lost precious minutes” attempting to sort robocalls from emergency calls.

Legislation to curb the flood of robocalls has been introduced in the U.S. House and Senate. Meanwhile, the FTC again advises recipients of these calls to avoid following any prompts and to quickly hang up the phone. Robocalls can be reported to the FTC online or by phone at 888.382.1222.

Refer to the FTC guidance on phone scams and the FTC guidance on spoofing.

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