Scammers committing a particularly painful form of identity theft appear to have hit on just the right formula to trick thousands of victims: A punishing heat wave, large utility bills, a bad economy and a good story.
The criminals have been marching across the country, making their way from state to state, persuading victims that a special federal government assistance program -- sometimes described as a bailout authorized by President Barack Obama's administration -- is available to pay their utility bills.
Victims are given bank account and routing numbers to use when paying their bills online, but only after they "register" by surrendering their Social Security numbers and other personal information.
There is no such utility payment assistance program. But electricity users seem to be falling for the ruse everywhere, making it in one of the more successful scams in recent times.
Last week, 2,000 people were tricked in Tampa the local utility company, TECO Energy Inc., told msnbc.com. There were more victims in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and across New England.
Utility firms in Utah and Californiareported similar scam epidemics earlier this year. And at least 10,000 people fell for the scam in New Jersey in recent weeks, Public Service Electric & Gas told msnbc.com.
"We see scams once or twice a year, and a handful of people fall for them. But this is crazy," said Sylvia Wood, TECO spokeswoman. She said about 2,000 customers tried to pay their bills with bogus account information traced to the scam within a 24-hour period last week. The scam spread so fast that all callers to TECO are now greeted by an automated message with a warning.
To read more about this story CLICK HERE.