Thieves, who turn a handsome dollar by intimidating home owners into paying "past-due" utility bills that they don't even owe, are increasingly setting their sights on business operators, warns Monmouth County Prosecutor Chris Gramiccioni.

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To aggravate the situation, they're not just phoning - they're showing up in person.

They can be male or female, and they're usually professional in speech and appearance. They have your account information and personal information. They demand direct payments through pre-paid debit cards, often Green Dot or MoneyPak, reloadable debit cards, or gift cards. Legitimate companies don't work this way.

"Unfortunately we have been down this road in the past, but it bears repeating over and over again," Gramiccioni said.

"No legitimate business is going to demand anyone make a payment over the phone using a pre-paid debit card. No legitimate business is going to show up on your doorstep demanding payment immediately with cash or pre-paid debit cards. It is just not going to happen, and if it does you are being scammed."

The Prosecutor cites the case of a small business owner in the county who was contacted by a woman claiming to represent Jersey Central Power and Light, warning of an immediate cutoff of electricity unless a $1,200 past-due assessment was paid.

According to Gramiccioni, the business operator was given 30 minutes to scrape up the money through pre-paid debit cards. The victim saw the brief window as a way to circumvent work stoppages and the embarassment of explaining the outage.

After loading the cards at a drug store, the business owner called to the number that the scammer provided, and relayed the account numbers on the cards. That, Gramiccioni said, was when the scam succeeded.

But there was more to follow. A short time later, a man claiming to represent JCP&L called, demanding a $1,500 "past-due" amount. That was when the victim disconnected the call, and dialed police instead.

"We live in a day and age where you must be vigilant about your surroundings and about the people with whom you will interact during the course of your everyday. Unfortunately you must start every interaction with cautious skepticism because there are fraudsters out there - the proverbial wolves in sheep's clothing," Gramiccioni cautioned.

This syndrome accompanies the longstanding ruse by people who seem to be utility field workers, showing up on the doorstep on the pretense of repairs. Once inside the house, they demand money to avoid a power cutoff, or, even more brazenly, just start looting the house while the victim watches helplessly.

"JCP&L will not call or email to demand immediate payment or threaten imminent shutoff," said Anthony Hurley, JCP&L vice president of Operations. "Our employees typically only visit a home in response to a service request. Employees also always carry photo identification, wear uniforms and drive clearly marked vehicles. We urge all customers to remain vigilant against con artists who claim to be associated with our company."

JCP&L, a subsidiary of FirstEnergy, does not demand, nor require, phone payment through pre-paid debit cards.

If you suspect that you've been scammed, first, call local police. If JCP&L was invoked in the ruse, call the company'sc customer service line, 1-800-662-3115.

Learn more about scam recognition and defense at the JCP&L web page.

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