DENVER — The cold weather and the pandemic have provided a window of opportunity for con artists to crawl through.
"I equate this whole experience now to like having a weak spot in your armor. Your enemy is going to look for your weak spots, and this was mine," said Rachael Moyte, an Aurora resident who said the caller on the other end of the line last week knew just what to say. "He said, 'this is Xcel Energy, and we are sending a tech out to shut off your meter for delinquent payments.'"
During a deep freeze and worried about unemployment, Moyte panicked in a way she normally would not have.
"He got me because it had been zero degrees, and I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I don't want my food to spoil,'" she said. "He got inside my head."
What happened next was a new twist on an old scam. The scammers used fake emails and spoofed phone numbers to convince Moyte to buy a MoneyPak (gift card) and another and another.
"In total, with everything, I lost $2,220.01," said Moyte. "I felt like such a fool, such a fool."
Contact Denver7 has learned that during the pandemic, reports of gift card scams have surged in Colorado.
"These criminals, and a lot of this is organized crime, they've really upped their game," said Jamie Sorrells, the director of Consumer Fraud Protection for the 18th Judicial District District Attorney's Office, which has launched a campaign warning people at grocery stores. "Albertsons, Safeway, they're already putting signage in the stores. It actually asks you 'Are you being forced to purchase a gift card to make a payment?'"
Xcel Energy is also warning customers that they would never ask for a MoneyPak or threaten to disconnect service on the same day.
"You should hang up the phone," said Chris Cardenas, Xcel Energy's vice president of customer service. "Call Xcel and just let them know what happened. You don't want to keep the scammer on the phone. They're very convincing at times."
Nationally, since 2018, the FTC says that people have reported spending $245 million on gift cards they used to pay impostor scammers.
Moyte filed her report with Aurora Police, and spokeswoman Crystal McCoy said they target people of all ages and backgrounds.
"On average, I'd say they get somewhere between $200 and $500 each time that it is successful," said McCoy. "We want people to know that gift cards are for gifts, not payments."
Moyte said she is embarrassed, but she said she would be more embarrassed to stay silent when so many other people could still be hurt.
"If one person hangs up the phone because of my story, I will consider myself paid back," said Moyte. "And know these people stole my money. They don't get to steal my peace. "
Editor's note: Denver7 seeks out audience tips and feedback to help people in need, resolve problems and hold the powerful accountable. If you know of a community need our call center could address, or have a story idea for our investigative team to pursue, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (720) 462-7777. Find more Contact Denver7 stories here.