Utilities industry gears up for consumer protection campaign to combat utility scams

Published on November 13, 2017 by Terri Williams

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The utilities industry is working together to highlight how customers – including the elderly, low-income families and small businesses – can protect themselves from becoming victims of scams during a week-long advocacy campaign from Nov. 13-17.

Nov. 15 is designated as Utility Scam Awareness Day, and throughout the week the industry will be offering support and raising awareness about unscrupulous behavior directed at stealing money from utility customers.

Sheri Givens, the recently elected executive director of Utilities United Against Scams (UUAS), and president of Givens Energy, a Texas-based energy consulting firm that provides policy research and advice, is leading the effort.

The goal of the week-long campaign is to heighten awareness regarding the various types of utility impostor scams, provide tips to customers so they can avoid becoming victims, and share information regarding the companies and agencies that customers can contact for assistance. Givens has also authored a new guide, “Consumer’s Guide to Impostor Utility Scams,” that is available on the UUAS website.

The advocacy effort was borne out of research on utility scams from Duke Energy. When the company initiated a scam database from June 2015 to December 2016, it found that 10,358 scam attempts were reported during an 18-month period. Based on that information, it was clear there was a need for an industry-wide collaboration to educate customers on the threat of utility scams.

The result was UUAS, an organization of more than 100 electric, gas, and water companies in the United States and Canada. The group shares data and best practices, and collaborates on initiatives designed to educate customers on the various types of schemes used by scammers.

While anyone can be targeted, she said elderly, low-income, and non-English speaking communities are more likely to be preyed upon. “Scammers are also likely to contact small businesses when they have a high volume of customers – for example, they may contact restaurants during lunch time.”

Givens explained that a typical scam involves a fraudster calling a customer and impersonating an employee from a local utility company. The scam artist will state that the customer’s last two electric bill payments were rejected and that a truck has been dispatched to disconnect their service unless a payment is made within 45 minutes.

The panicked consumer or business owner is likely to ask questions or at least ask for more time. The scammer then replies that the truck has already been dispatched and that they are merely providing a courtesy call. At that point, Givens said, the scammer will demand new payment with a prepaid debit card purchased from a local retailer in order to stop the disconnection of services. They will provide the victim with a phone number to call back with their prepaid debit card information.

Other types of phone scams involve a fraudster calling to solicit payment for installing or replacing a device or utility meter. Another popular trick is to call customers and inform them that they have overpaid. In this scam, the caller will request banking or credit card information to issue a refund.

“Phone scams are more prevalent, but personal and email scams are also common,” Givens said.

And when scammers come to a customer’s door, she says there are additional concerns. “These individuals might be trying to scope out the dwelling for a future burglary.”

With email scams, customers will receive what at first glance appears to be an official-looking email or bill from a company, but is actually designed to trick the recipient into divulging personal and financial information.

How can customers protect themselves from these various scams? By being diligent and refusing to be rushed into making decisions.

For example, when a legitimate utility company calls, and the customer calls them back, Givens said they might ask for identifying information. Sophisticated scammers are able to manipulate the caller ID so it appears that the call came from a legitimate source.

“Always call the number listed on the bill or the company’s website,” Givens warns. Utility companies typically don’t force customers to use only one form of payment, like a pre-paid card, and they don’t demand immediate payment.

Regarding in-person visits, Givens said that employees should be wearing the company’s uniform – which includes identifying logos, and should have company identification that includes a photo. “Also, they don’t just pop up unannounced; companies tend to schedule services unless it’s an emergency.” When in doubt, she advises customers to call the company to confirm that the individual is a legitimate employee.

With email messages, Givens said scammers have the ability to create bogus, but entirely official looking emails. She advises against responding to those messages or opening any links or attachments.

“Always protect your personal information, such as your social security number, date of birth, etc.,” she warned.

While there is a designated day and week for this year’s specific outreach campaign, Givens said that UUAS works throughout the year to educate customers and thwart scams.