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A scam artist is calling Southern Maryland residents and asking them to pay money or risk having their electric service disconnected, according to law enforcement and the local electric cooperative.

Callers claiming to represent the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative have been contacting customers and threatening to cut off service, according to the electric cooperative. The caller tells SMECO customers to make a payment by purchasing a prepaid debit card, such as one provided by the company Green Dot, according to a SMECO statement.

“In some cases they even tell customers to buy the card at a local CVS store,” Terry Ressler, a SMECO communications director, said.

Customers are then told to call another phone number to read the card information over the phone. The scam artist can then cash in the monetary value of the prepaid debit card.

“I think that [the intended victims] are all over Southern Maryland,” Ressler said. She said the cooperative has had at least 40 customers contact it about the scam since late last week.

At least some of the calls were to homes or businesses that did not have any late payments due to the electric cooperative, she said. Some customers who reported the scam said that the person who had called told them power would be cut off to their homes within a very limited time, like within an hour, Ressler said.

Customers who have received a phone call from an unauthorized source may call a local law enforcement agency or the Federal Trade Commission at 1-877-FTC-HELP.

“SMECO has received a number of phone calls from customers who have been targeted by this scam. They said that ‘SMECO’ appeared on their phone’s caller ID, so they thought the call was legitimate,” Tom Dennison, SMECO’s government and public affairs director, said in a statement.

SMECO has a set routine for collecting payments from customers. It only calls customers who owe a past-due balance; usually uses an automated phone message; does not require payment at the time of the call; and does not make collection or termination calls on weekends or holidays.

If service is going to be terminated, a SMECO collector will knock on the customer’s door before turning off service.

“We don’t want our customers to lose their hard-earned money to a scam artist,” Dennison said. “Customers should never provide financial or account information to unauthorized callers.”

Customers who are unsure about whether a phone call claiming to be from SMECO is legitimate should hang up and call SMECO at 1-888-440-3311, Dennison said.