Your favorite local restaurant needs your help fighting a scam they probably don't even know about.
Con artists are waiting until customers arrive to force the owners to pay hundreds of dollars to keep the doors open. Getting the word out to customers might be the best way to stop the scammers in their tracks.
We've warned about the scam before. Utility imposters are threatening to cut off the power immediately, unless restaurant comes up with cash. The problem is, most restaurant owners miss the warnings because they're busy working, getting ready to serve customers.
The scammers are targeting small, neighborhood restaurants --independently owned eating spots where the location, type of food, or name signals a cultural factor that can be used to trick the targets. Reports are coming in from all parts of the city.
Inaam Khazaal said her popular West Seattle restaurant Phoenicia was packed one evening when an authoritative man called after 5 p.m., claiming to be from the collections department at Seattle City Light.
He insisted her electricity bill was delinquent (it was not) and gave her 15 minutes to agree to pay her bill immediately or her power would be cut off. The man wanted $1,443.98. Khazaal says she panicked, took down the Seattle phone number she was given, then called back and got a recording greeting that said "Seattle City Light Collections."
The scammers are "spoofing" caller ID numbers and setting up bogus voice mail. The scam is hitting ethnic restaurants across the city. Scammers are using language barriers, confusion, distrust or fear of officials, and the fear of suddenly losing power during peak business hours.
"They're targeting ethnic restaurants. Immigrants who may not know the law," said Khazaal's adult daughter, Nadia, who helps run the business.
Nadia says police told her some people are falling for it and frantically obeying orders to buy pre-paid debit cards from the nearest retailer. Fortunately, her mother did not go that far.
Seattle City Light says the old scam resurfaces from time to time. The utility issued a public alert in May. The Problem Solvers issued another alert in August.
Spokesman Scott Thomsen says the con artists can be very convincing.
"The people who are doing this are very good at creating confusion and trying to get you to believe they are who they say they are," Thomsen said. "We do not call customers after hours about their bills. We do not call customers with immediate demand for payment. We send at least 2 written notices before any moves are made."
Thomsen urges anyone who gets such a call to try to get as much information as possible, especially the call back number the calleer wants you to use to confirm you've purchased the debit cards. But do not purchase any cards nor give any financial information. Get as much information as you can, then file a fraud report with police.
Again, restaurant owners, and potentially other businesses being targeted by this scam are not getting the message. So if you have a favorite neighborhood restaurant -- ethnic or otherwise -- next time you stop in, make sure the management is aware of the scam.
While many restaurants get suspicious and hang up, others get confused and frightened and give up money they don't even owe. And don't assume the scam is only targeting small businesses. Scammers have recently started contacting residential customers with the same threats and demands.