More Sophisticated Utility Billing Scams on the Rise Across the U.S.: How Customers Can Protect Themselves

All across the country, utility billing scams are on the rise, and the methods the scammers use are getting more and more sophisticated.

The scammers target customers of local power companies, calling them on the phone and demanding payments. One thing the demands all have in common is asking customers to put the money onto a prepaid debit card.

Michele Bell, a dog groomer in Southwest Florida, got a call from a man identifying himself as an employee of Florida Power and Light. He told Bell that her store’s power would be shut off if she didn’t pay her $400 August bill.

Bell told him that she had already paid her bill, and she asked the man to identify her account information: the store’s address and her customer account number. The man gave the correct information.

Bell asked to speak to a supervisor and heard an automated message similar to the real FPL holding automation. When the supervisor answered, she continued to ask questions to confirm her account information.

The scammers had her name, address, phone number, and access to her last three FPL payments. At that point, not wanting to get her power shut off before her customers came in the following morning, she agreed to pay the bill and called back later that day to give the man the number on the prepaid debit card.

Although the fake supervisor told her she could get her money back if she found proof of her August payment, she never did. When she called back to ensure that her service wouldn’t be interrupted, the phone number no longer worked.

An FPL spokesperson later said the company was aware of the problem, but no data breach had occurred. The scammers were using customer phone numbers to get access to billing accounts.

In Southern California, utility provider SoCal Edison also warned customers of scammers, these ones asking for $500 in prepaid debit cards.

Although the scam had been going on for some time, the callers redoubled their efforts earlier this year, increasing their call volume from an estimated 300 to 500 calls per month to around 1,200 to 1,500.

Since the scams began in December 2012, more than 8,000 of SCE’s customers have been targeted, with 800 to 900 of those customers losing an average of $1,000 to $2,000, and sometimes more than $3,000, to the scammers. Total losses, according to SCE, number around $250,000 in customer payments to the fraudulent callers.

A similar scam, started in Louisiana in July 2013, was aimed at customers of electricity provider Cleco. Shirley Turner, general manager of customer experience management for the company, cautioned customers against making these payments.

“Cleco will not call and demand payment from customers,” Turner said. She explained that customers should call the number for Cleco’s call center or check their balances online.

Utility companies all give the same warnings to customers. They will never call and demand payment, and they won’t suggest a particular method of payment, either; in fact, many do not actually accept pre-loaded money cards.

Unfortunately, catching the scammers may not be so easy. The majority of the calls come from outside the United States, according to the El Monte Police Department, who are investigating the SCE scam.

“The anonymity of the Internet has made calls more difficult to trace,” said Detective Tim Sidentopp of the El Monte Police Department. The department is so far unable to tell where the calls are coming from.

Customers in all areas are encouraged to hang up if they receive such calls, and they can also report the incident to state and local authorities and on the Federal Trade Commission’s website.

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