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After Almost Getting Scammed, EG Cafe Owner Warns Others

The owner of Simon Says Cafe in East Greenwich said he almost got scammed by an impostor demanding immediate payment for an electric bill.

The moment that Defin Rainho realized he might be about to send hundreds of dollars to a scammer was when the employee at CVS pointed to a red phone.

He had his National Grid electric bill in hand and was ready to pay his $352 bill, still rattled from the maddening, more-than-10-minute phone call he just had from a person who said he was from National Grid and the power to his cafe on Main Street in East Greenwich would be cut off if he didn't pay because a worker urgently needed to install a new meter right away. And he had to pay now.

"The lady directed me to a red phone, and that's when I thought 'this doesn't sound right,'" Rainho said in an interview.

Rainho was expecting to pay his bill the way many folks pay utility bills in a time crunch—with a person who works behind a counter at the drug store. But the kind of transfer he was told to ask for was a MoneyGram, a pay-by-wire service which necessitates the use of a red phone tucked to the side of the customer service desk that automatically dials the MoneyGram service to send money.

It seemed fishy, suddenly, and it dawned on him that nobody was going to be asking for the account number from his utility bill. 

He went back his place of business - Simon Says Cafe - and called National Grid. 

"I hope you didn't pay it," the woman who answered his call said.

"I did not," Rainho told her.

"Good," she said, and told him another customer the other day just got hit for $1,200. And that's not chump change for a small business owner.

That gut instinct saved Rainho the $352. And he's hoping that his story helps save another small business owner from getting scammed. And even though Rainho admits that upon reflection, he could have spotted the scam before being shown the red phone, it can happen to anyone.

"It can happen to anybody. What I learned is that if you get a call that you did not initiate yourself, then hang up and call them back," he said. "Take the number from the bill and call them back."

It started on Feb. 26 when Rainho got a call around 9:50 a.m. at the store.

The caller sounded legitimate and "we went back and forth for a while," Rainho said.

The gist was that Rainho was led to believe that he hadn't gotten or noticed warnings about the upcoming "meter change" and unless his outstanding balance was taken care of, the power would be cut.

Rainho said the man on the phone said he needed to pay $325 to get the account current. But Rainho noticed his bill was for $352. And oddly, it wasn't technically due until the following day on Feb. 27.

"I asked him why just $325 and he said they'd give me a credit for the inconvenience," Rainho said, noting that by that point, he was very agitated and told the man to take the discount and shove it up his you-know-what. 

He's thankful that he had the presence of mind and enough time to cool down from the heated exchange on the phone to realize that he was falling into a scammer's trap. 

The utility bill scam has become a serious problem for law enforcement and has been happening more and more in recent months, prompting the utility company and the state Attorney General to issue regular alerts and warnings. 

Just today, Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin, National Grid RI President Timothy Horan and a group of victims, including a retired Newport Police Sergeant, held a press conference to highlight the issue.

National Grid sent an e-mail alert to about 200,000 customers in Rhode Island and local police departments have joined the effort to let people know about the scam.

Remember: the electric company doesn't shut off power in the winter and they never demand payment over the phone or by money transfer. If someone calls you claiming to work for National Grid, hang up and call the number on your utility bill.
george farrelly March 12, 2014 at 12:00 PM
I also don't get what the deal is with the red phone. Red phone. CVS? Not explained very well
Mark Schieldrop March 12, 2014 at 12:03 PM
Sorry. It's a phone that you use to send MoneyGrams. I'll clarify the story.
george farrelly March 12, 2014 at 01:43 PM
Thanks Mark appreciate it.
Mark Schieldrop March 12, 2014 at 03:26 PM
No problem. Always open to suggestions, especially good ones.

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