Two weeks ago, Maria Valenzuela was standing in for her brother as general manager at Taqueria Rancho Grande on Winchester when she received an unusual call from a man claiming to work for Memphis Light, Gas & Water (MLGW).
"He said that within a few hours, the energy was going to be cut off, because they'd already sent a cutoff notice," Valenzuela said. "He said he could receive a payment over the phone and that they were just trying to prevent us from getting the energy cut off."
His voice was formal and very businesslike, she said, and he knew the exact amount of money the restaurant owed to MLGW.
According to MLGW spokesperson Glen Thomas, Valenzuela's phone call is one of several cases in which a Hispanic business is targeted by a scammer claiming to work for the utility company.
"Most of the time, it involves the customer being told to get some sort of a gift card or prepaid debit card and then give the information about the card to the scammer," Thomas said. "In some cases, they're told an MLGW employee will meet them at their home or business to collect money."
Despite the scammer's cool demeanor, Valenzuela could sense something was amiss.
"I've been late on my payments for my house before," she said. "They never called and warned me that it was going to be cut off. MLGW never calls to give you a warning within a few hours of cutting off power."
This scam, which first came to light in November, targets Hispanic-owned businesses in Memphis. In September, a similar scam rippled through the Hispanic community, aimed primarily at residents. Thomas believes the scams are connected and that one man might be behind them both. MPD could not confirm a connection.
Valenzuela did not pay the scammer and never heard from him again, but Thomas said other Memphians have fallen prey to the scheme.
"I know some of the residents did, unfortunately, fall for it," he said. "We try to get the word out, because we know if they've contacted five businesses they've probably contacted 20."
Many of those cases will go unreported, says Lieutenant James Grigsby of the Memphis Police Department's Economic Crimes Unit.
"A lot of scammers do target the Hispanic community or people from other countries because of the language barrier and the fact that they don't know," he said. "And, in all honesty, with those businesses, a lot of them don't even report."
But how did the scammer know the exact amount Valenzuela's family owed MLGW?
"There are many ways they could have done it," Grigsby said. "MLGW could have sent out a late notice and something got sent to the wrong place. It could be someone working from the inside. It could be a computer hacker. They could have been answering a series of questions and not even realized that they gave some information out. We've had incidents in the past where people gave information out — a little bit here and there — and didn't even realize it."
Thomas urges potential victims of the scam to report to police: "We simply don't do business in that fashion. We don't call customers to tell them they're past due and they need to make a payment over the phone. We don't come to a business or a residence to collect utility payments. We don't collect payments in the field. A lot of these things should set off some warning flags for customers, and we want to make sure they know that these are not MLGW business practices."