Fighting Utility Scams

Nov. 21, 2016
Industry rallies to fight climbing utility fraud

Utility scams are cropping up everywhere nationwide.  Here’s how one works: Someone impersonating a utility employee or billing/collections department contacts a utility customer, by telephone, in-person, or by email, claiming the company has not received payment for the customer’s bill. 

They demand immediate compensation and threaten the customer by telling them that their electricity, natural gas, or water will be shut off if payment is not received. The person looks and sounds legitimate.

The customer panics and figures out a quick way to pay, whether it is with a prepaid debit card (e.g., Green Dot, Visa, MasterCard, Apple iTunes, or any store gift card) or a money transfer. This is when the trouble starts. 

Utilities want to stop these con artists from taking advantage of customers and have joined together in a public awareness campaign called “Utilities United Against Scams.”  This coalition of North American utilities includes electricity, natural gas, and water companies, and the campaign, which kicked off in a weeklong series of activities beginning this past November 14, will be part of an ongoing effort to educate and protect utility customers.

As the former state utility consumer advocate for Texas, I have talked to countless consumers about individuals knocking on their door claiming to work for their utility (showing utility logos on their clothing or handouts), receiving demanding phone calls for payment (asking the customer to read the numbers to them off the back of the prepaid cards), and getting emails (asking for personal information to verify accounts or payment).

Even though these lawbreakers have no connection or affiliation with the utility, when customers later call about these encounters, the utility takes the calls and tries to help resolve the problem. 

One utility, Duke Energy, shares that during a sixteen-month period, from June 2015 through October it received customer calls relating to 7,497 scam attempts and learned, unfortunately, that 634 customers paid the scammers losing $631,000 collectively. 

These are numbers based only on the actual reports received by the utility from its customers.  There are likely many more scam attempts, victims, and losses that were not reported.

Utilities decided that they had had enough with these criminals defrauding and stealing from their customers, and they are uniting and taking action to educate everyone about the schemes and scams these crooks are using in utility service areas to ensure their customers know what to do when thieves come knocking or calling. 

During the third week of November annually, participating utilities will be hitting their social media channels, local news outlets, and bill inserts to inform customers of the tactics scammers are taking.   Utilities are proactively working with local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies to provide any information that might help identify, and prosecute, criminals posing as utility representatives.

Through their education efforts, utilities are encouraging customers who believe they have been a victim of fraud to call their local police department through the non-emergency telephone number, their state attorney general’s office through its toll-free number, or the Federal Trade Commission. 

The utilities’ campaign is proactively alerting customers to serious crimes and hoping to help put a stop to them.

Sheri Givens is an energy consultant in Austin, Texas and the former head of the Texas Office of Public Utility Counsel.

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