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Utility scams to watch out for and how you can protect yourself

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Posted at 11:26 AM, Nov 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-17 11:26:11-05

The Better Business Bureau is teaming up with local electric companies to help shut down utility scammers and to protect consumers and businesses by participating in the sixth annual Utility Scam Awareness Day on Wednesday, Nov. 17.

Natural gas and electric utility companies across North America are also working together as part of a weeklong campaign for International Scam Awareness Week, focused on identifying the tricks scammers use to steal money from customers and how customers can protect themselves.

Scammers posing as utility representatives, called imposters, use a variety of email, in-person and phone tactics to target families and businesses to steal money.

Since the pandemic started, scammers have increased calls, texts, emails and in-person tactics and are contacting utility customers asking for immediate payment to avoid service disconnection, the BBB says. Scammers have been taking advantage of people’s reticence to leave the house during the pandemic by asking for payments over the phone using digital payment applications and, on occasion, cryptocurrency.

“Prepaid debit cards or gift cards are a scammer's choice to receive untraceable payments,” said Karen Nalven, President/CEO of Better Business Bureau serving West Florida. “Be sure to treat a prepaid debit card and gift cards like cash and remember transactions cannot be reversed.”

Better Business Bureau urges Floridians to report this scam to BBB Scam Tracker HERE. Whether you are victimized or not, reporting can help to warn others.

The BBB 2020 Scam Tracker Risk Report found that of those who were victims of a utility scam, the median loss was $336.

Duke Energy is a founding member of the Utilities United Against Scams (UUAS) collaborative, and Tampa Electric and Peoples Gas are members. The group consists of more than 150 natural gas, electric and water utility companies across the country and Canada. Members of the organization work across the utility industry and with regulators, law enforcement and other telecommunications partners to help stop scams targeting utility customers.

UUAS has helped to shut down thousands of toll-free phone numbers used by utility-impostor scammers.

So far in 2021, nearly 4,700 TECO customers in Florida have reported hearing from scammers, which is twice as high as last year. About 140 customers (or about 3 percent) lost a total of $85,000.

In the first 10 months of 2021, approximately 4,000 Duke Energy customers in Florida reported scam attempts. Of these customers, 150 paid the scammers about $112,000. Across all states served by Duke Energy, nearly 30,000 customers reported scams. The good news: only about 4% of customers have fallen for the scam in the last year, down from more than 9% before Utility Scam Awareness Day began in 2016.

Utility customers can visit this interactive to gauge their awareness of common scam techniques and for additional information and safety tips.

Common scam tactics

  • Utility disconnection threats: Customers may receive threats to turn off electric or gas service – usually in less than an hour – if a large payment is not made.
  • Immediate payment requests: Customers are asked to quickly purchase a prepaid debit card and provide the card information, which grants the scammer instant access to personal funds. Some scammers may also request a money wire or a payment app.
  • Calls that appear to be from your utility: Scammers may rig caller ID to make it look like the call is from a service provider. They have even duplicated the utility’s upfront Interactive Voice Response system, so when customers call back phone numbers provided by the scammer, it sounds like a legitimate phone number.

How to protect yourself

  • We encourage customers who suspect a scam to hang up and call their utility company immediately at the phone number listed on their bill or website, followed by a call to the police and report the incident to BBB Scam Tracker to help warn others. Never dial the phone number the scammers provide.
  • Do not pay over the phone if immediate payment is demanded to avoid disconnection. Customers with delinquent accounts receive an advance disconnection notification from utilities – never a single notification an hour before disconnection.
  • Utilities never ask or require a customer with a delinquent account to purchase a prepaid debit card to avoid disconnection. Customers can make payments online, by phone, automatic bank draft or by mail.

How to identify utility workers conducting work on or near your property

  • If customers question whether the person is a legitimate utility representative, contact the utility to verify their identity and reason for the visit.
  • Always ask for identification. Employees of Duke Energy, Tampa Electric and Peoples Gas carry company-issued identification.
  • In some instances, representatives from private companies may be working in your area on behalf of your utility as a contractor. If they do not have an official identification card, ask for their name and the reason for their visit, and then contact the utility to verify the information.
  • Customers should call the police immediately if they believe the person is an imposter.