CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Duke Energy is warning customers in the Carolinas of a new bill-payment scam that already has cost some consumers up to $900.

More than 35 small-business and residential customers already have fallen victim.

The scam works this way: A customer gets a phone call from someone claiming to work for Duke. The caller threatens to cut off the customer s electric service if a payment isn t made within an hour.

The caller then instructs the customer to buy a prepaid debit card, widely available at retail stores, and call back to make a payment. Armed with the card s receipt number and PIN, the scammer drains the card s balance.

Duke says it never asks customers with delinquent accounts to buy debit cards to avoid disconnection. Customers may pay online, by phone, mail or automatic bank draft.

Duke customers who are behind on their payments get multiple notifications over several weeks before service is cut off.

The company urges customers who suspect or experience fraud to call local police, and then the utility. Duke Energy customers should call 800-777-9898; Progress Energy customers 800-452-2777.

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