Rob Bales said he was only trying to pay his water bill.
He said he received a call this week from a person claiming to represent Rock Hill’s water department. The caller told Bales his utility account was past due, and that Bales was in danger of having his water shut off if he didn’t pay up immediately.
Bales owns two Papa Murphy’s pizza stores, one in Rock Hill and another in Fort Mill. He said he couldn’t afford to have one of his stores close.
So Bales said he followed the caller’s directions: He purchased prepaid cards to send in $1,200 to pay the account, hoping to resolve the issue.
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“So I made the payment, and then they call me back, and said ‘We gave you the wrong amount, the system rejected it,’” Bales said. “They said they’ll reimburse me, but I have to pay again. I was able to scrape up some money and put $1,500 in, because they said they left out the late charges. They come back and tell it was rejected again.”
In all, Bales said he was swindled out of nearly $3,000 to scammers who police say prey upon both businesses and residents in Rock Hill.
When Bales went to Rock Hill City Hall to find out what had gone wrong, he discovered that he was a victim. He said he reported the crime to the York County Sheriff’s Office because his business is located in the county.
Detective Keith Dugan with the Rock Hill Police Department said such scamming is “cyclical” and pops up two or three times each year.
The scammers, Dugan said, usually contact potential victims by phone, and tell people that they are late on a payment. If they do not pay up quickly, sometimes in the space of a day, their water or power will be shut off, the callers tell potential victims.
While some residential accounts have been targeted, Dugan said scammers have been focusing mostly on local businesses. The scammers often have foreign accents, and will speak quickly to encourage a sense of anxiety and fear, Dugan said.
“Let’s say they call 20-50 people a day,” Dugan said. “If they get one person to make a payment and send it in, that’s an effective scam. That makes them rich.”
The scammers are striking during the holidays because there’s a greater chance of someone picking up the phone and acting, Dugan said. He said there have been about a dozen calls to police from people reporting that they have recently been targeted by scammers.
The scammers will ask victims to pay their late bills through prepaid cards or bank transfers, according to a Rock Hill police department detective.
Bales said the scam was elaborate and “seemed real.” He said he was told to call a separate number with the area code 877, which was automated to mimic the City of Rock Hill’s phone system.
Dugan said victims have been told to call 877-729-3429, extension 200. The scammers then ask victims to pay their late bills through prepaid cards or bank transfers, he said. One caller requested payment in Walmart gift cards, according to the city.
The city will never call customers and threaten to shut off power or water, Dugan said. He said scammers try to get the victims flustered and panicked to spur them into action.
He said the best course of action for anyone who is wary about a call, or thinks they are being scammed, is to call the Rock Hill Utilities Department at 803-325-2500. Even during the holiday season, he said, there is always someone at that office to take calls and respond to concerns about accounts.
Bales said he wants his story to help stop scammers from claiming another victim.
“Never believe it if they say it needs to be immediate,” Bales said. “Always check with the city.”