Utilities work to educate consumers about scams

Published on November 14, 2018 by Liz Carey

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For the third year, utility companies across the country are banding together to help raise consumer awareness to combat utility scams.

Utilities United Against Scams (UUAS), a consortium of more than 100 U.S. and Canadian electric, water, and natural gas utilities, is highlighting Utility Scam Awareness Day on Nov. 14, part of a week-long advocacy and awareness campaign to expose scammers tactics to consumers.

Over the past three years, UUAS and its members have helped terminate more than 2,200 scammers’ toll-free numbers.

“To better protect customers, it is critically important we continue to raise awareness and educate customers about scams,” said Duke Energy’s Vice President of Customer Operations for Piedmont Natural Gas and Metering Services and UUAS Chairman Jared Lawrence. Through the ‘7 Scams in 7 Days’ campaign UUAS will highlight the most common scam tactics and provide resources to help utility customers better protect themselves from utility impostor scammers.”

According to Duke Energy, scammers are only successful less than 10 percent of the time, but those successes add up to lost money for consumers. The company said more than 25,000 Duke Energy customers have reported scam attempts since the company starting tracking reports in 2015. While Duke said only a small fraction of those customers actually fell for the scams – roughly 5-7 percent – those losses represented close to $1.5 million that customers paid to scammers over the last 38 months.

But primarily, said Lori Peek, building and security analyst for Georgia Power Co., 70 to 80 percent of scam calls affect commercial and not residential customers.

According to UUAS, in addition to calls to consumers for immediate payment to prevent disconnection, scammers often also call areas hit by storms or other disasters offering to reconnect service or offer preferential treatment to businesses for a fee. Scammers also call commercial and residential customers demanding payment for replacing or repairing equipment or to upgrade a meter.

Kristin Rudman, spokesperson for UUAS, said scammers target commercial clients when they are at their weakest.

“Scammers often target small businesses by calling during peak business hours and threatening disconnection if bills are not paid immediately. Utility companies will never ask you to purchase prepaid debit cards for any reason,” Rudman said. “By targeting commercial customers, scammers ask for more money calling a business than a residential customer due to a potential larger payout. Additionally, the scammers often try to target businesses at their peak hour of the day, intent on driving more victim anxiety to get the payment — residential customers don’t necessarily have the same predictably sensitive periods during the day.”

Tom Gauntt, spokesman for Pacific Power in Oregon, said the company sees scammers targeting small businesses.

“Our customers are impacted daily. It is a hassle and a disruption to their lives and it harms the relationship we have built with our customers over the years. It is very rare that we actually find anyone who has been scammed. That is mainly due to human nature. When you have been scammed you often feel very embarrassed and just don’t tell other folks,” he said. “We hear quite a bit from small businesses, but are they just more likely to call in the scam? One group we do see as being targeted are businesses with owners who may not have English as a first language. It looks like the scammers try threats and count on confusion to push the small business owner to pay up or be out of business for a period of time.”

For Pacific Power, the solution to stopping scammers is to reach out to authorities and consumers as quickly as possible.

“First we tell them definitively that we are not making this demand. We ask them to gather whatever info they have about the scammers and we get that to authorities to shut down whatever number the scam calls are coming from,” he said. “This is kind of a whack a mole situation, but it keeps the scammers off balance and makes it harder for them. We scale up social media messages within minutes if the call center reports a rash of scam calls in a particular area. We do frequent news releases in local areas when it is clear a scam push is going on as well as being connected with local chambers of commerce to push out messages to businesses in targeted areas.”

Utility company officials say they have used billing reminders, social media campaigns, email messaging, text messaging and traditional advertising to help educate their customers about the activities scammers may use to get their money.

Barbara Bossart, chief of Reliability and Service Analysis for the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO), said her organization walks a fine line. While PUCO educates consumers on the right questions to ask in order to prevent scams, regulators do not want to discourage customer electric choice. Ohio is a deregulated state where consumers can choose third-party energy suppliers.

“We don’t want customers to be afraid to do transactions over the phone,” she said.

But for utility companies, the goal, authorities said, was to educate the customer to report the scam and work with the company to resolve the issue.

Jennifer Golz, spokesperson with Nicor Gas in Illinois, said Nicor works with customers who have been victims of scams.

“We have an investigative process in place should a customer suspect fraudulent activity on their account. We also recommend they contact their local police to file a report and possibly even place a fraud alert with the credit bureaus. Every situation is different and our goal is to work with each individual to best resolve their needs, as every customer deserves peace of mind that we’ll be there to keep their homes warm, businesses running and families safe,” she said.