Lynn Barbini had spent the better part of her Monday scrambling to make a payment on a Dominion Energy bill she thought was three months overdue.

That, she hoped, would head off a threat to cut the power at her house in Providence Forge, which a man on the phone who claimed to be a utility employee said was imminent.

"They were on route to my house, that's how he termed it," she said.

Lacking a debit card, Barbini, owner of a trail-riding business, was coaxed into making an $800 payment via a prepaid card purchased at a drug store, enough she thought to stave off a disconnection that would make it impossible to water her 23 horses and create an embarrassing inconvenience for a group of riders coming to spend the night.

But another man, who said he was a Dominion manager, then demanded she pay what he said was the full balance owed of $1,200, so Barbini headed to her bank to figure out why the automatic payments she thought she had set up months ago weren't working.

The teller showed Barbini an webpage about a scam involving Dominion customers. The teller started asking the scammer questions and he hung up. The 800 number Barbini had been calling most of the day immediately stopped working.

"I was sick to my stomach," she said. "It all flooded, like this big huge heat wave, over me that I had just been had."

As of Nov. 3, Dominion says 2,678 of its nearly 2.5 million Virginia customers reported that they had received a fraudulent phone call attempting to collect a debt, a string of calls that has succeeded in scamming $120,425 from unsuspecting residents and businesses. That's an increase of 49 percent over 2016, said Janell M. Hancock, a Dominion spokeswoman.

On Monday alone, Dominion received 100 reports of scam calls, she added. In a news release Wednesday, Dominion, Virginia's largest utility, warned its customers about the surge in rip-off attempts.

"We never threaten customers with immediate disconnection when they are behind on their bills," said Charlene Whitfield, Dominion's vice-president of customer service. "We contact customers by phone or in writing multiple times to work out a payment plan before disconnection occurs. The payment plan never requires payment within an hour or less."

Some victimized customers say their caller IDs have read "Dominion" when called by the scammers. Barbini added that when she called back after the first call from a man claiming be "Kevin Reese" from Dominion dropped, she heard what sounded like an exact recording of Dominion's automated answer and dial-by-number phone tree.

"We lose power a lot during storms so I have to call them a lot," Barbini said. "There was not one thing that made me suspicious."

A few other factors made it easier for Barbini to believe that something was wrong with her account. She had recently moved and maintains home and business accounts. Barbini also had set up automated payments about three months ago, the same amount of time the scammers claimed that her bill had been delinquent, so enough pieces clicked into place that she thought the call was legitimate until it was too late.

Now, though, she's embarrassed that she was taken in, given all the signs that were there: the pressure to get a prepaid card, the callers' foreign accents, and the looming threat of a service disconnection.

Particularly stinging is the one of the scammer's remarks as he took the prepaid card number:

"'Slow down and read the number. I want to make sure I get it. I don't want your day to get any worse,'" Barbini recalls. "He knew exactly how bad my day was going to get."

Though it's not easy to admit publicly that she was defrauded, Barbini said she wants to help ensure it doesn't happen to someone else.

"Nobody can afford to throw $800 out the window. I've got 23 horses to feed," she said. "It was a blow. But luckily it's not going to crush me. But there are people out there who will not recover if it happens to them. ... What if that was your parents, what if that was your mother or the poor person down the street who can't put food on the table for her kids?"

Dominion says it is working with local and federal law enforcement as well as other energy companies to monitor scams.

The utility reminds customers to call (866) 366-4357 to confirm whether a payment is due and collect information from scammers to help law enforcement.  Customers should never use a prepaid card to avoid a shutoff and can pay in person at designated Dominion payment centers.

rzullo@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6453

Twitter: @rczullo

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