Scammers using new tools to trick small businesses in payment scam

Carlsbad salon owner warns other small businesses

CARLSBAD, Calif. - A Carlsbad business owner victimized in a scam is sharing her story in hopes of putting other businesses on notice to be on the lookout.

"Make a payment within the hour, or your electricity will be shut off immediately" -- that's a threat not taken lightly by small businesses in San Diego County, including the Hairitage Salon in Carlsbad.

Toni Larson frantically returned the call demanding an explanation because she knew the salon's bills had already been paid.

However, the voice on the other end of the line claimed to be from San Diego Gas & Electric's billing department and said Larson's only option was to put $495 on a pre-paid credit card and give the card's number to him.

"I argued with him and even asked to be transferred to a supervisor," said Larson, who told 10News she knew something was fishy.

Larson said the two men she spoke to seemed very professional, but when she told them she would drive her payment to the SDG&E office in Oceanside, "They said, 'No, you can't do that, ma'am. It takes 24 hours to process,' and I'm thinking, wait a minute, something's not right here."

Larson hung up the phone, telling the men she would call SDG&E to verify. As she was pulling the number from her contact list, she got an incoming call. The caller ID said it was SDG&E, and Larson thought that was the proof she needed that the demand was legit.

Even though she paid the money, Larson had a bad feeling. She called back the number listed on her caller ID.

"I called that number back, and it rang and rang and rang and rang, and I went, 'Oh, oh,'" said Larson.

The next number she called was that of the real SDG&E, where an operator told her she had fallen victim to a scam that's sweeping the nation -- payment fraud.

Seventy small businesses in San Diego County have been hit by the scam artists since July, and hundreds of cases have been reported across the nation, according to SDG&E.

The utility says it never calls people to tell them their payment is overdue. Notices are sent well in advance of any shut-off.

Larson told 10News a fraud investigator with SDG&E said the scammers likely programmed a telephone modem to trick her into thinking the call was coming from a legitimate company.

Larson, who was embarrassed by falling victim to the scam, decided to come forward in the hope of warning other small businesses.

"I want to pay it forward," she said.

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