Last Updated:November 21 @ 02:40 pm

Thousands fall for scam that Obama will pay their bills

By AP Staff

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - As much as President Barack Obama wants your vote, he's not actually offering to pay your monthly bills.

But thousands of Americans have been persuaded otherwise, falling victim to a fast-moving scam that claims to be part of an Obama administration program to help pay utility bills in the midst of a scorching summer.

The scheme spread quickly across the nation in recent weeks with help from victims who unwittingly shared it on social media sites before realizing they had been conned out of personal information such as Social Security, credit card and checking account numbers.

"No one knows who is behind this," said Katherine Hutt, spokeswoman for the Council of Better Business Bureaus in Arlington, Va. "We're pretty concerned. It seems to have really taken off."

People from all corners of the country report being duped, from New Jersey to California, Wisconsin to Florida and all parts in between.

The scam benefits from being cleverly executed and comes at a time when air conditioners in much of the country are running around the clock to tame record-high temperatures.

Here's how it works: Victims typically receive an automated phone call informing them of the nonexistent utility program that will supposedly pay up to $1,000. There have also been reports of the hoax spreading by text message, flyers left at homes and even personal visits.

Victims are told that all they have to do is provide their personal information. In exchange, they are given a bank routing number and checking account number to provide their utility company when making a payment.

The swindle works because the payments with the fake bank account number are initially accepted. Only when the payments are processed hours or days later is the fake number caught and rejected.

But by then, victims have told friends about the offer, posted it online and, most important, turned over personal information that could allow con artists to dip into their bank accounts or steal their identity.

There's no way to accurately measure how many people have been affected, "but this one feels like it's pretty widespread," Hutt said.

Taneisha Morris' sister was drawn into the hoax after a friend received a text promising federal assistance with her bills. The sister sent the information to Morris, a Detroit woman who is unemployed after losing her job as a manager at a KFC restaurant.

Morris quickly took advantage, providing her Social Security number and asking for $187 toward her DirecTV bill and $800 toward what she owed DTE Energy, a Michigan utility.

"It was very disappointing to me," Morris said Thursday after learning she had been deceived. "They shouldn't do that to people. I just lost my job in February, so it's very hard for me to come up with extra money."

It wasn't clear whether law enforcement agencies were investigating. A message left with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington was not immediately returned.

The first reports of the hoax surfaced in the spring and spiked in May and early July. Utilities and Better Business Bureau offices swiftly issued warnings.

"We see a lot of door-to-door scams," Hutt said. "It is somewhat unusual to see one that's so well tied-together. There could be copycats in there. We're not entirely sure. At this point it's probably more than one scammer."

Victims appear to be concentrated in New Jersey, where about 10,000 customers of Public Service Electric & Gas were conned. The first complaints arrived in May, but the bulk of them came over a six-day period in late May and early June, company spokeswoman Bonnie Sheppard said.

The scam quickly grew as victims shared the word on social media, "thinking it was a legitimate federally sponsored program," Sheppard said. "And of course, that can become confusing because there are legitimate federally sponsored programs."

There have been numerous other reports:

- Entergy Corp. said in May that about 2,000 of its customers had been affected, mainly in Louisiana but also in Texas.

- Another 2,000 people, customers of TECO Energy, which covers the Tampa area, fell victim earlier this month.

- About 1,500 Duke Energy customers in the Carolinas and a few in its Midwestern states were duped, company spokeswoman Paige Layne said.

- Atmos Energy, one of the country's largest natural gas distributors, issued a warning in May to its 3.2 million customers in 12 states after about 300 customers in Mississippi reported being conned, company spokeswoman Jennifer Ryan said. Atmos sent out a second warning in July.

"It's gaining some ground," Ryan said of the ruse.

- Between 90 and 100 bogus payments came into Alliant Energy Corp., which serves about 1 million people in southern Wisconsin, most of Iowa and southern Minnesota, spokesman Scott Reigstad said.

The Better Business Bureau and others are warning people not to share personal information unless they have initiated the contact and are confident in other person.

"We try to make this as easy and quick to grasp for anyone," said Janet Hart with the BBB in the Carolinas. "Never give out your personal information to someone who calls you."

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Associated Press Writer Mike Householder in Detroit contributed to this report.

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14 Comments

  1. effwingerComment by effwinger
    July 13, 2012 @ 9:35 am

    So what’s the surprise? Obamacare was sold to a public that largely believed the healthcare was going to be free. I have been amused from the outset at how these socialists can fool so many, most not having any idea of the difference between insurance and healthcare. If this Kenyan squatter is given another four years, this nation will be over….

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    Rating: 4.7/5 (12 votes cast)
  2. KAHR50Comment by KAHR50
    July 13, 2012 @ 11:25 am

    Nothing is free, Idiots!

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    Rating: 4.3/5 (9 votes cast)
  3. cgretiredComment by cgretired
    July 13, 2012 @ 11:57 am

    Well, what do you expect. I seem to recall at the time of the inaguration, many were actually saying how relieved that they were because Obama and the US Govt will pay their mortgages, give them free gasoline, take care of their utilities.. this is how they were brainwashed, and unfortunately, they are still waiting for this to happen. They will probably vote for him again, hoping that it will become a reality.

    Sorry, but as KAHR50 stated so clearly… nothing is free.

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    Rating: 4.5/5 (11 votes cast)
    • nhpollackComment by nhpollack
      July 13, 2012 @ 12:23 pm

      It was Peggy Joseph. Here’s the forever immortalized video clip:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P36x8rTb3jI
      I wonder if she’ll vote to reelect him.

      No matter how low I set the bar for human stupidity, after 67 years, I still see I’ve been overly optimistic. Now it’s so low it would take an earthworm to limbo under it, but like the song went, “How low can you go?”.

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  4. Johnny RippsComment by Johnny Ripps
    July 13, 2012 @ 12:00 pm
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  5. Johnny RippsComment by Johnny Ripps
    July 13, 2012 @ 12:06 pm

    The sad thing about these wanna be free loaders getting scammed, thinking Obama will pay their bills, is that they are allowed to vote; when it is obvious they are too stupid to make any type of smart decision. This is a prime example of what’s wrong in America today….People living on any type government assistance should lose all voting rights until they become productive members of our society…and that’s productive, not reproductive!

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  6. mcoryComment by mcory
    July 13, 2012 @ 12:20 pm

    Those idiots are same fools who voted for Obama; lets hope that they won’t vote in November.

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    Rating: 4.3/5 (6 votes cast)
  7. minnieComment by minnie
    July 13, 2012 @ 12:26 pm

    This scam has been around since 2008 about around the time chrissy matthew said he gets a tingle up his leg everytime he hears obama give a speech, by now he should have a terrible rash and I am sure obama knows about this. Obama has not REJECTED THIS SCAM. Who will ask obama to reject this scam that this will not happen, has this contribute to foreclosures, people waiting for this to happen. People also thought the obamacare was going to be free. But now it is OBAMATAX.

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  8. middlegroundComment by middleground
    July 13, 2012 @ 3:40 pm

    Why shouldn’t people believe this scam? Every time I log on to the computer I see Obama’s smiling face leering out at me from the screen telling me he, Obama, will give me a free education, pay my mortgage and a dozen other freebees being promised to get me to take advantage of some new government program. “Borrow money for college, take a course with no possibilities of employment and if I’m elected by your vote, I’ll cancel your student loan at the end of 10 years”. “Buy a house way beyond your ability to make the payments and if I’m elected I’ll make those greedy banks forgive your loan”.

    Bread and butter promises to the mob for their vote have been around since the second century BC, and have always gotten mob support until the entire economy collapses. In Rome it was throwing the Christians to the lions for entertainment and today it’s throwing them under the bus as big screen TV has replaced the cheering mobs in the Coliseum and “entitlements” have replaced free bread, but the end result is the same – inflation ending in poverty.

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  9. BillzillaComment by Billzilla
    July 13, 2012 @ 5:31 pm

    To paraphrase P.T.Barnum, There’s a Peggy Joseph born every minute.

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    • nhpollackComment by nhpollack
      July 13, 2012 @ 7:52 pm

      You pose an interesting grammatical question: Does using a synonym really make it a paraphrase or is just stating it a slightly different way?

      Most of them are born to single mothers and start life on Uncle Sam’s plantation just the way the Left wants it.

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  10. cxComment by genesal
    July 13, 2012 @ 8:18 pm

    O has a Robin Hood Fiscal Policy, that’s all he knows.

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  11. cinbadComment by cinbad
    July 14, 2012 @ 4:43 pm

    Obama’s campaign funds are running low and this is David Axlerod’s new idea to re-fill their coffers. This article pairs up with Obama laughing it up at the computer screen on the “Caption the photo” . Him and his greedy, evil co-horts are laughing at the American people (and illegal immigrants)falling for the scam.

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  12. iamacmanComment by iamacman
    July 21, 2012 @ 12:50 am

    “They shouldn’t do that to people. I just lost my job in February, so it’s very hard for me to come up with extra money.”

    Poor Ms Morris… Maybe it would be a bit easier to come up with “extra money” if you got rid of that $187 DIRECTV BILL…

    Gots to have my MSNBC…

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