Bristol businesses targeted by scam


As part of running the family’s business, Deidre Balzano makes sure that her bills are paid on time. So when Ms. Balzano received a call telling her that she had 60 minutes to settle an outstanding utility bill for Tweet Balzano’s Restaurant, she became skeptical. Still, the man with a Jamaican accent was persistent, telling her that service was about to be shut off.

“He told me to go to CVS or Rite Aid to get a Green Dot card and put $1,000 on it to delay the interruption,” Ms. Balzano said.

That call came on Monday, Aug. 12, and Balzano’s wasn’t the only target.

Similar calls were received at LeCentral Restaurant, Classic Pizza and Riccotti’s, according to Bristol Police Deputy Chief Steven Contente. While these businesses recognized the scam and contacted police instead of paying the scammer, one person did fall for the ruse.

“On Tuesday a man received a call around noon and was told he owed six months of missed payments on his gas bill to his residence,” Dep. Contente said.

The man was instructed to purchase a debit card in the amount of $1,498 and call “Robert” with the card number. It wasn’t until after the victim followed the caller’s instructions — and lost nearly $1,500 — that he contacted National Grid and discovered he had been scammed.

The problem is statewide, said National Grid spokesman David Graves.

“We started getting calls last Tuesday,” he said of the scam.

The attorney general’s office also has fielded complaints from targets.

“It’s not the first phone scam,” Mr. Graves said. “What’s different about this one is that it’s targeting businesses.”

The scam artists rely on creating a sense of urgency, hoping that their prey will react in haste. Utility companies such as National Grid have a process to notify customers who are late paying their bills, and would not request that a customer pay with a store debit card.

“There would be notices on at least two bills,” Mr. Graves said of National Grid’s policy to inform customers that they are in arrears. “We do outbound phone calls, but we never demand payment or threaten shut-off.”

The scam artists hope that fear will cause their victims to act impulsively.

“I knew we were totally up to date with bills,” Ms. Balzano said. “I asked him to tell me which account.”

Instead, the caller told her she now had 50 minutes left before the electricity would be turned off.

“You start to wonder, oh my God, did I make a mistake,” she said.

But the circumstances and the man’s demeanor appeared suspicious. Ms. Balzano hung up. The caller tried again, with the same demand and the same threat of cutting service. Ms. Balzano went through the routine four times on Monday and once on Tuesday when another man with a Jamaican accent demanded $200.

“We just hung up on him,” Ms. Balzano said.

Then she called the police.

“They’re hard to catch because they’re calling from another country,” or using a disposable phone, Dep. Contente said.

The Bristol Police turn these cases over to U.S. Secret Service.

Anyone who receives such a call should contact police at 253-6900 and not comply with payment requests that are threatening or appear unwarranted. Those who receive calls should also contact National Grid at 1-800-322-3223 and speak with a customer service representative to verify their billing information.

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.