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Manitoba Hydro Phone Scam Targets Local Business

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Bitcoin Scam Crop
The Shell gas station on St. Mary's Road where Rashwan was instructed to go, and the bitcoin machine where she was instructed to make her payment. Shereen Rashwan

In the last few months, a number of Manitoba business have been the target of a sophisticated telephone scam in which the callers pose as employees of Manitoba Hydro.

On October 16, Shereen Rashwan, owner of Bistro 290 in Niverville, says she very nearly became a victim of the scam. Around 10:00 a.m. that morning, she received a phone call which the call display showed as coming from a Manitoba Hydro number. The caller identified himself as an employee of Manitoba Hydro and told Rashwan that due to missed payments, a Hydro representative had been dispatched to turn off her utility immediately.

“I said that was impossible because we are set up as preauthorized payments, so if a payment was missed it was their fault, not mine,” says Rashwan. “Then they said it was a deposit that I was owing from back when I started the business that was missing and there must’ve been a miscommunication. They said they had sent me three letters saying that payment was due. I said I had not received any of those letters, and they said they would send another letter, but their priority that day was to collect that payment so that they could remove the order to shut off my hydro.”

Rashwan says she found the phone call very concerning, but it wasn’t a good time to talk and she asked to call them back.

When she returned the call, the phone number this time did not display as belonging to Manitoba Hydro. When the call connected, she heard a pre-recorded voice answering machine. The voice identified itself as coming from Manitoba Hydro and the answering service had a numerical option system.

To Rashwan, this is part of what made the scam so convincing.

“The number they gave me to call back to deal with my ‘specific issue’ was not a Manitoba Hydro number, but it did have a pre-recorded Manitoba Hydro message that says, you know, ‘Please press one for this or two for that,’” says Rashwan. “They had information on my business, they sounded very professional, and the fact that I called back and it was a Manitoba Hydro recorded answering machine was very convincing to me.”

Rashwan says that she spoke to three different people in total, and everyone’s directions to her about what to do was very similar. They were even able to text her a QR code with a Manitoba Hydro-branded text message showing her where and how to make her payment.

There were, however, a few warning signs Rashwan did pick up on. The first was her certainty that her Manitoba Hydro account was up to date. When she told that to the scam artist, that’s when they changed their story.

The second warning sign came when she began to think she must have indeed forgotten to make the alleged deposit and asked how she could make the payment.

“They said they had machines set up around the city to take payment for Manitoba Hydro,” Rashwan explains. “They gave me an address on St. Mary’s Road [in Winnipeg] and said they would only accept cash at that particular kiosk. They had me convinced that I had missed this payment somehow, and they had me convinced to go make this payment.”

Though she didn’t know it at the time, the address given to Rashwan was for a Shell gas station and convenience store. When she arrived, she thought this was odd, but proceeded to go into the building. She then saw the kiosk that the scammer had indicated. It was a Bitcoin ATM.

Bitcoin ATMs allow people to purchase cryptocurrency, an internet-based money system, by using their own cash, or sometimes a debit card.

“At this point, I got back into the car and looked up a Manitoba Hydro number on my phone,” she says. “I found one on their website and called it. I got through to a representative and told them everything that had just happened. They said they had received three or four other calls recently that reported the same thing.”

Rashwan did not complete the payment and confirmed with Manitoba Hydro that the scam had been reported to the RCMP for investigation.

Manitoba Hydro also confirmed that this is not how they would handle a missed fee or payment. In fact, all residential or commercial hydro disconnections are currently suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the Manitoba Hydro website, this type of scam has been happening since April 2020, when the pandemic started. Scammers would contact customers by phone or email claiming they had an outstanding bill and demanding payment. Failure to pay within thirty minutes would result in their service being disconnected.

Chris McColm, Manitoba Hydro’s Security and Investigations Supervisor, says that the scammers appear to be taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We will never phone you and demand immediate payment by a prepaid card or a money order,” McColm says. “We’re all under a lot of stress and these scammers are trying to take advantage of that. These scammers are extremely convincing. With so many people at home, they’re preying on our anxiety and hope we let our guard down.”

Rashwan is relieved that she didn’t get taken advantage of further, and that the only thing she really lost was two hours of her day.

“That was a two-hour experience I’ll never get back,” says Rashwan with a laugh. “But I was really mad.”

Following this experience, Rashwan says she has learned a tip to help figure out if a phone scammer is trying to contact you.

“A scammer can show up on the call display as the organization they are fake-representing,” she says. “But the tip I learned is, tell them you can’t talk right now, but then call them back at that number. If you call them back at that number, you will see it is not on your call display as that organization and it may not even be a real number.”

Manitoba Hydro says customers should call 204-480-5900 or 1-888-624-9376 if they get a call or email and are unsure if it’s authentic. Customers can also send a message to the utility’s Facebook or Twitter pages @manitobahydro.

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