An Agua Dulce restaurant owner said fear over his business potentially losing power became a cautionary tale for others after an internet scam took $6,800 out of his pocket last week.
Joe Marazzito, owner of Sweetwater Bar and Grill in Agua Dulce, said he was preparing for the restaurant’s St. Patrick’s Day crowd Wednesday when he received a call from someone claiming to be from Southern California Edison.
Marazzito said the voice on the other end of the line claimed to be the power company and that unless he paid an outstanding balance of $800 immediately, he’d lose power at his restaurant.
“It was St. Patty’s Day,” said Marazzito in a phone call with The Signal on Monday. “They knew I had to have my power.”
The last year had been difficult financially on all restaurants, Marazzito said, and this year’s St. Patrick’s Day would be one of the first opportunities businesses would have to bring in customers and pay their staff.
The unverified scammer then told him that he would be able to keep his power on if he made an immediate cash payment of $800. Using what are now known to be falsified records, the voice on the other end throughout the process was able to electronically send Marazzito receipts with his name and the SoCal Edison logo encrusted upon them.
The person then informed the restaurant owner the payment would have to be sent through a specific ATM machine that would accept his cash deposit of $800 and send it through to the “power company” by use of Bitcoin. The machine’s crypto currency allows for free transfers of money in seconds, but the transactions are also untraceable.
Marazzito said soon after he made the first deposit of $800, and having spoken to his business partner about what was transpiring, he received another call from the scammers.
A new voice was now telling Marazzito that he was a general manager at Edison, and said the $800 payment was not received, and he’d now have to pay $6,000, or he’d shut off the power.
Again, Marazzito, fearing for his regulars and employees, did as he was told and sent the $6,000 in cash. Each time, he was given a receipt with his name, address and case reference number on it through the ATM.
On his way back, he received a third call, with the third voice telling him the $6,000 hadn’t gone through, but if he sent another payment they would reimburse him for the first two. Marazzito then hung up, did not make the third payment, returned to work and filed a Sheriff’s Department report in Palmdale on Friday.
Both SoCal Edison and law enforcement officials told him this wasn’t the first time they had heard about something like this happening, but they were unable to do much to get the money back.
Reggie Kumar, a public safety adviser for SCE, said the company was aware of the scams and has been trying to educate customers on major red flags.
“Our hearts go out to this customer during this difficult time as many business owners struggle to stay open in the middle of a pandemic,” Kumar said.
He then provided the following tips to avoid becoming a victim of a utility bill scam:
- SCE does not have a “disconnection department.”
- SCE will never demand an immediate payment with the threat of disconnection.
- SCE does not accept prepaid cash cards or bitcoins for bill payments.
- SCE will never ask for your credit card or account information over the phone.
- SCE employees will not demand to collect, or accept, payment in the field.
The 67-year-old restaurant owner said he came forward with his story because he wanted to spread awareness and let people learn from his mistake.
“I screwed up, and I never should have put the money in there,” said Marazzito. “But Edison will never ask you to pay cash for anything, and they will not call you to send a late notice.”