OPINION

Working Together to Protect Utility Customers From Scams

Have you ever been on the receiving end of an attempted scam? Unfortunately, many of us have: a confusing voicemail from an unknown number, a text from a service you don’t remember signing up for, or a suspicious email, all urging you to share your personal information or click on a link. 

With scams becoming increasingly sophisticated, it’s no surprise that people of all ages are being impacted. In fact, millennials are 25 percent more likely to report losing money to fraud than those 40 or older, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

In some of the most despicable cases, scammers will prey on your reliance on water, electricity, natural gas and other critical services by masquerading as your utility company. As the executive director of Utilities United Against Scams, a consortium of more than 140 U.S. and Canadian utilities and their respective trade associations, I am all too familiar with the risks associated with these attacks, and they can be difficult to detect. That’s why UUAS marks Utility Scam Awareness Week each year in order to share the latest information available, so that you can better protect yourself and your family, or your business, from falling victim to utility scams.

First and foremost, it’s vital to recognize the warning signs of a utility scam. If you receive any communication, either by email, text, phone or mail, claiming to be your utility company and demanding immediate payment through an unfamiliar method, do not respond. 

One of the most common scare tactics for scammers is to pretend your services will be shut off without payment, and they often require that you purchase a prepaid credit card to pay off this “debt.” This is particularly common for small businesses during busy hours.

Your real utility company would never cut off your services without ample notice and would accept multiple forms of payment. If you believe you are being targeted, you should immediately contact your utility company using the phone number located on your bill or on the company’s official website.

In addition to exploiting your fear of having your power or water turned off, scammers will reach out in times of crisis such as power outages and after natural disasters. In these cases, scammers will offer to restore your power or other sources more quickly or before others in your neighborhood for immediate payment. 

This is not how utilities operate during power outages, as your homes and businesses would always be reconnected free of charge. Scammers also are especially active during holidays such as  Thanksgiving, when they expect people to be traveling, cooking or entertaining.

Bogus utility notifications can take many seemingly ordinary forms, as well. For example, they may claim that you have overpaid your bill or demand that you replace utility-related devices such as your meter. These scams will almost always lead to questions regarding your bank account, credit card or other personal information. 

If you indeed overpay, your account would be credited, or you would be sent a check in the mail from the utility itself. If your home or business required a repair or new equipment, your utility would contact you in advance and schedule an appointment.

When it comes to avoiding phone, digital or direct mail scams, there are a few major tips to follow. Across the board, it’s helpful to protect your personal information as much as possible. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the FTC, between 2010 and 2015, identify theft complaints nearly doubled. 

You should also make sure to carefully read through any and all documentation you receive from your utility to make sure that you understand the material and to identify anything out of place. If you receive a suspicious email, delete it, and if you are on a call that sounds like a scam, hang up. Finally, stay up to date on new scams and the latest best practices by visiting www.utilitiesunited.org or by checking out the tips offered by many utilities and local officials.

It’s important to remember that not every scam will come in the form of a fake bill, phone call, or email. Around the country, UUAS has discovered a number of utility imposter scammers that have tried to trick customers in-person on their property. These individuals may even go so far as to wear fake uniforms, imitating your utility company and asking for access to your home or yard. 

While it’s true that some situations may require that your utility enter your property, it will always be done by an appointment made well in advance. If you haven’t made an appointment, or if you’re suspicious for any reason, do not let anyone into your home and call 9-1-1 if you feel that you’re in personal danger.

Scammers can approach you in any number of ways and are evolving their tactics every day. Utility Scam Awareness Week is a great reminder to make sure your personal information is protected and to get up to speed on the latest scams and how to better protect yourself, your family and your business year-round.

 

Monica Martinez is the executive director of Utilities United Against Scams, a consortium of more than 140 U.S. and Canadian electric, water and natural gas utilities and their respective trade associations.

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