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Police warn of scams targeting Laguna Beach businesses

This Oct. 24, 2016, photo shows dollar bills in New York. Fraudsters are increasingly picking up the
Fraudsters have been calling and trying to steal money from Laguna Beach businesses by pretending to be collecting overdue bills for Southern California Edison, according to the Police Department and Chamber of Commerce.
(File Photo / AP)

Laguna Beach police are warning local businesses to beware of scammers after several calls in the past week, including one in which a business handed over about $1,000 to a man pretending to be with power company Southern California Edison.

Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory manager Brittany Anniballi said a man called Friday saying the store was overdue on bills and that the power would be shut off if they were not paid.

The store owner spoke with the caller and eventually gave him information for a couple of prepaid credit cards, Anniballi said. Afterward, she said, a friend of the owner suggested he call Edison and verify the call. That’s when he found out the store had been duped.

The store was able to cancel one of the cards, but the scammer made off with nearly $1,000, Anniballi said.

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“It seemed super legit,” she said. “[The caller] even had a callback center.”

Jordan Villwock, Laguna Beach’s emergency operations coordinator, said the Police Department received a “handful” of reports from other local businesses that had received the same sort of call.

“They kind of provide that anxiety that in just a few hours, your business could not [have power] anymore,” Villwock said.

He said the Police Department does not investigate phone scams but sends the reports to the FBI, since the calls often come from overseas.

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The department advised people who receive such a call to hang up and call the service provider the caller claims to be from to verify their account status.

Edison also gave tips for how to identify “spoof” calls:

  • Calls come multiple times in a day
  • Calls come outside normal business hours
  • Caller asks about the customer’s usage or meter information
  • Caller recommends buying alternative energy products
  • Caller asks for a Social Security number or other personal information

The Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce sent an email Friday warning local businesses about the scam.
“Remember, when you receive a phone call that feels ‘wrong’ it often is. Stop, pause … ask a friend or call the police before you send money to anyone on the phone for any reason,” said the email from the chamber’s executive director, Paula Hornbuckle-Arnold. “Be vigilant!”

Hornbuckle-Arnold said the chamber received messages from several businesses about other scams circulating recently. One person told her of a call from a “Social Security Department” asking for the person’s Social Security number because it had been “compromised.”

Another told of a man who visited the person’s business pretending to be a federal employee checking on the business’s labor rules. The man gave the business a fake bill for not properly displaying the information.

An ongoing scam, Hornbuckle-Arnold said, is a caller pretending to be from Google wanting information to make an account change.

“I guess there’s a bunch of them going on right now,” Hornbuckle-Arnold said.

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About two months ago, Laguna Beach was the target of a “virtual kidnapping” phone scam. Scammers contacted two parents in early March claiming to have kidnapped their daughters and demanding ransom. One parent wired $5,000 to a Mexican account before learning that his daughter was safe and had not been kidnapped. The other parent called Laguna Beach police and confirmed her daughter was safe.

The Federal Communications Commission released warnings last week about two phone scams. In the “one ring” scam, wireless consumers receive a call that appears to be from a U.S. number but is actually international. Such calls often disconnect after one ring. A consumer who calls back may be connected to an international hotline that charges significant fees.

The other, a Mexico collect call scam, often targets people with Spanish surnames. A caller claims to be an operator with a collect call from a family member who has an emergency or important message. The person who accepts the call is charged a large collect call fee and may even be charged if the call is not accepted.

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