Fake CenterPoint reps threaten to cut off power, direct victims to automated operator

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TIME TO HANG UP: A new twist on an over-the-phone scam

"Make a payment in the next 30 minutes or service will be shut off."

That was the warning some small businesses in Houston were met with during phone calls Monday morning.

The calls came as supposed courtesies, giving the businesses a number to reach an automated payment line.

Just one catch, though. The callers claimed to be CenterPoint Energy representatives, but that was not true.

"If I had been in a panic, or if I had been maybe less experienced, I might have (made the payment)," bookkeeper Tobi Gourley said.

Gourley works at Galson Auto and got a call from someone posing as a CenterPoint representative. They were threatening to turn off service at the shop in just a matter of minutes if she didn't make a payment.

"It's always possible that you've made an error. At first, I was concerned about it, because I don't want to let my employer down," she said.

Across town, the same thing was happening to Ray Moon at his Beechnut Auto shop.

"I said, 'How much do you think I owe you? Oh, it's about $1,100 and some odd dollars.' I need to pay that in the next 30 minutes or they're going to turn off my electricity," Moon said.

It was the same high-pressure tactic: pay now or service would be cut off. In both these cases, the caller didn't have basic account information so the businesses were not fooled.

"I said, 'What account number are we talking about?' and he said, 'You're account is blocked," Gourley said. "He was really aggressive and that's when I said. 'Oh, this is fake.' And I just hung up."

The payment phone number given to the businesses led to an automated system that seemed capable of accepting payments but not transferring callers to a real person.

ABC13 was contacted by a few other businesses saying the same trick was tried on them. CenterPoint warns caller IDs can be tricked, so if a customer has doubts about a suspicious call, they should simply hang up and call the number printed on the actual bill.

"Of course, I'm wanting to catch the bad guys and I'm also wanting people to be warned that this is out there," Gourley said.

"Hopefully, karma comes back and gets them," Moon said.

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