In a new twist on an old scam, crooks are demanding payment in bitcoin



HONOLULU (KHON2) – Hawaiian Electric is reporting a new twist on an old scam.

Scammers are targeting customers of Hawaiian Electric, Maui Electric, and Hawaii Electric Light, claiming they have overdue utility bills that need to be paid.

But instead of money, customers are instructed to pay in the digital currency known as bitcoin.

On Oahu, three businesses have reported being scammed, paying hundreds of dollars at bitcoin machines after callers threatened disconnection of their electric service if immediate payment wasn’t made.

"They weren't even overdue, but the scammers sounded so convincing that these business owners were willing to pay. They actually went to a bitcoin machine as directed by these scammers and fed cash into the machines, which then transfers it into digital currency," said Shannon Tangonan, HECO director of corporate communications.

The scammers gave customers a callback number, which provided automated prompts similar to ones used by the companies.

"They sound so convincing. Even when they ask you to call back, they have prompts that sound or mimic our prompts when we have automated calls or recorded messages," Tangonan said. "They're very convincing, so we just want to make sure the public is aware of these calls, and what we're asking them to do is please do not call back the number that you see on your caller ID."

The customers were also sent threatening email with a “disconnection notice” on letterhead with an outdated Hawaiian Electric logo. The notice provided a QC code to scan at a local bitcoin machine, converting dollars to the digital currency.

The trend popped up on the mainland earlier this month, with hundreds of reports of fraudulent callers demanding bitcoin, according to Utilities United Against Scams (UUAS), a national consortium that includes the Hawaiian Electric Companies.

Hawaiian Electric says it does not accept bitcoin as a form of payment. 

“This is simply a new twist on an old scam, but our same advice applies: just hang up,” said Jim Alberts, senior vice president for customer service of the Hawaiian Electric Companies. “Whether it’s bitcoin, gift cards or money orders, our companies aren’t going to threaten you or have you running around town to meet unorthodox payment demands.”

Customers should know:

  • If you receive a call from someone or an automated recording from Hawaiian Electric, Maui Electric or Hawaii Electric Light demanding immediate payment over the phone or via prepaid debit cards or bitcoin, it’s a scam.
  • If the caller asks to meet you to pick up a payment or provides directions to a bitcoin machine, it’s a scam.
  • If the caller says your account is delinquent and threatens to shut off your power immediately unless payment is made, it’s a scam.

Customers should simply hang up if they receive such a call, and then dial the customer service line that is printed on their monthly electric bills or listed on their company’s website. They should not call the number displayed on the caller ID, even if it says HECO, MECO, or HELCO.

The scammers appear to be calling customers at random, and the recent calls have been to Hawaiian Electric customers on Oahu. Scammers are becoming more persistent and aggressive, insisting that a bill is overdue even if the customer knows it’s been paid.

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