The last thing we need - scammers exploiting the pandemic to try to rob already down-on-their-knees New Zealand businesses.
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But it's happening.
An NZX listed business has revealed how its customers are receiving demands for overdue payments so it is warning business to be particularly beware of the unscrupulous trying to take advantage of these difficult times.
Mercury NZ said some of its customers had been the target of thieves and it has encouraged people to be extra careful and check who they are dealing with.
"We have heard of scammers calling our customers about overdue bills. We encourage our customers to be vigilant during this time to ensure they are not taken advantage of by opportunists," a Mercury spokesperson said today.
The Newmarket-headquartered business has established a special new 0800 number to deal with people struggling to pay during the lockdown.
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"Unfortunately, we don't know where the scammers are originating from, and know other businesses' customers will also be affected. The scammers are seeking online credit card payments," the spokesperson said.
"We encourage customers to read their bills carefully, as the scammers won't know the exact billed amount, and to call us if they receive a call from someone claiming to be from Mercury Energy, our legal name is Mercury NZ, so that's a giveaway it's a scam call."
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Netsafe provides online safety expertise and people can also report scams to it.
Mercury wanted to support all customers as they face impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, including the lockdown associated with the country's alert level 4 response, a statement said.
By Tuesday, it had answered more than 25,000 calls via its customer engagement centre, sales, and collections and fielded 6500 online inquiries.
"We have put in place measures to allow greater flexibility to businesses seeking short-term relief. Key to this for us is to work with customers on a case-by-case basis. We have payment support options in place and encourage customers to contact us on our dedicated 0800 456 222 Covid-19 line if they have concerns about paying their bills," the spokesperson said.
Questions were put to other businesses about what relief they were offering to particularly commercial customers.
A spokesperson for Vector said most commercial sites, even if shut, would still need electricity for security, lighting and probably refrigeration.
"For the majority of commercial customers, Vector charges around 70 per cent variable charges to retailers, meaning businesses that have shut are likely to have had reductions in consumption and therefore costs."
Andrew Fairgray, chief of business at 2degrees, said the telco was really mindful that this was a challenging time for customers and wanted everyone to stayed connected.
"We've lifted the caps on limited broadband plans for businesses and consumers and we won't charge late payment fees. We will work directly with our customers to understand their circumstances and we'll talk through some of their options. Like others in the industry, we still have obligations to pay Chorus for the broadband services we provide our customers."
A Spark spokesperson said that like many businesses, it needed to continue charging where it was continuing to provide services. But it had moved early to put in place a support package for consumers and small business customers to support them during Covid-19.
"This includes the removal of data caps on broadband plans, waiving late payment fees for anyone who cannot pay a bill due to Covid-19, and also not disconnecting any customer who cannot pay.
"Recently we also provided unlimited data on small business wireless broadband plans. We are also working with the Ministry of Education to rollout our not-for-profit, subsidised broadband product Skinny Jump to families who do not have an internet connection at home and may need to take part in distance learning."
The Government was providing financial support to people and small businesses and the broadband market was highly competitive, with very small margins. Spark had to continue paying Chorus $45 per broadband plan, which is about half of the cost of the plan, regardless of whether the customer pays Spark or not.
"So clearly it wouldn't be sustainable for our business to not charge for services we are continuing to provide," Spark said.
A spokesman for Chorus said that business had postponed an annual CPI increase that was due to be passed on to the retailers.
"We've also recently announced that we would be providing 50,000 broadband connections with no wholesale charge for six months to homes that have students but no available broadband," he said.
Acknowledging that some businesses might choose to disconnect temporarily and then re-connect, Chorus had also waived the fees usually associated with disconnection and re-connection. How retailers choose to pass on wholesale costs was up to them, he said.