SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 28, 2014

Phone scammers target Danvers

Businesses told to pay or power would be shut off

BY ETHAN FORMAN
STAFF WRITER

---- — DANVERS — Kary Andrinopoulos was working the grill at New Brothers Restaurant and Deli in Danvers Square on Saturday morning when he got a call from a fast-talking man with an overseas accent.

The restaurant was behind on its electric bill, the caller said.

The call caught Andrinopoulos, who co-owns the deli, off guard. There was a line out the door, and this was the first he’d heard about being behind on the bill.

“I was a little upset,” he said.

He argued with the caller, who told him: “ ‘In 45 minutes, I send somebody down to shut off your electricity.’ ”

Andrinopoulos checked his bank records and found he had paid the electric bill to the town on Jan. 14. He even had an employee fetch him a copy of the check from the back office.

But the caller insisted he did not know anything about this payment. He also refused to say who he worked for, only that it was his job to make the call. Andrinopoulos asked to speak with the caller’s supervisor, and someone else came on the line, but he, too, refused to say if he was from the town, which runs a municipal electric division.

At that point, the supervisor, who identified himself as “Ken Smith,” asked Andrinopoulos to make some sort of minimum payment toward the power bill.

Fortunately, that never happened.

Waiting in line for brunch was Selectman David Mills, a former prosecutor and judge, and when Andrinopoulos turned to him for help, Mills alerted other town officials. The deli was up to date on its electric bill, and it avoided losing any money in the scam.

Police Capt. Pat Ambrose said New Brothers was not the only place in town to get hit that day.

“We received somewhere around 25 or so of those calls that came into the station questioning whether or not it was something that was legit,” Ambrose said. Other callers to police just wanted to let officers know a scam was going around.

“It was, ‘We are going to shut off the power unless you pay for one of those Green Dot cards,’” Ambrose said.

Ambrose was referring to prepaid debit cards that scam artists trick victims into purchasing.

Once they do, the scam artist calls back and asks the victim to scratch off the number on the back of the card and read it out loud. That allows the scammer to quickly drain the money from the card, and there is no way of getting it back.

“I don’t have any reports that anyone got caught up and paid anything,” Ambrose said.

It was clear that Danvers Electric was not making the calls.

“The phone number that they give comes back out of country,” Ambrose said.

Ambrose said scam artists tell potential victims a variety of stories — their relative has been taken hostage or someone they know was involved in a car accident. The caller tells the victim they can purchase a Green Dot card to forward them money.

“This is just another variation, unfortunately, of what’s going on,” he said.

Downtown businesses were targeted five or six months ago, too, Ambrose said. Residents in other communities, including Haverhill, have been targeted, as well.

Mills said he had just come in for brunch when Andrinopoulos approached him.

“The poor man was frantic,” Mills said.

Mills got on the phone and spoke with “Ken Smith,” but the caller said he would talk only with the owner of the restaurant.

Mills sent text messages to Selectman Gardner Trask, who used to serve on the town’s Municipal Light Board, and Town Manager Wayne Marquis looking for answers about how the town goes about shutting off power to a customer.

“We have a long, protracted process where we work with the customer,” Trask said. “... We don’t simply shut off.”

On Facebook, Trask warned residents to ask anyone who calls claiming to be from the town to ask for an ID and an employee number and to never to give credit card or cash to anyone not in a town building.

Trask plans to bring up the issue at the next selectmen’s meeting Feb. 4. One way the town could help residents and businesses would be to call residents to alert them when a scam is taking place, he said.

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.