Stop scam­mers and phish­ers in their tracks

Maryland Independent - - Community Forum -

They’re scam­mers. They’re phish­ers. They’re crooks.

And as tech­nol­ogy be­comes more so­phis­ti­cated, so do the bad guys.

They have seem­ingly come in waves this sum­mer. First, there was a phone scam from call­ers pre­tend­ing to be from the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice. The caller claims to be from the IRS, de­mand­ing pay­ment on an over­due bal­ance — which, of course, the tax­payer does not owe.

On top of that, Mary­land Comp­trol­ler Pe­ter Fran­chot (D) warned about a phish­ing scam that tar­gets tax pre­par­ers them­selves. The cul­prits send emails to tax pro­fes­sion­als that pur­port to con­tain im­por­tant soft­ware up­dates, but ac­tu­ally in­fect their com­put­ers with mal­ware.

Then last week, the South­ern Mary­land Elec­tric Co­op­er­a­tive is­sued a warn­ing about scam­mers at­tempt­ing to steal from SMECO cus­tomers. Ac­cord­ing to Tom Den­ni­son, manag­ing di­rec­tor of gov­ern­ment and pub­lic af­fairs for the co­op­er­a­tive, thieves “fre­quently prey on the el­derly and peo­ple who speak English as a sec­ond lan­guage. But lately, busi­nesses have been tar­geted.” Since busi­nesses gen­er­ally have higher elec­tric bills than res­i­den­tial cus­tomers, they’re more at­trac­tive to scam­mers look­ing for a big­ger pay­day.

In one in­ci­dent, Den­ni­son said, a busi­ness owner in South­ern Mary­land re­ceived a call, telling him his power would be cut off within an hour if he did didn’t make a pay­ment. He “was fo­cused on a ma­jor event he was prepar­ing for, and he be­came alarmed,” Den­ni­son said. “Rather than tak­ing a few min­utes to con­tact SMECO di­rectly to check his ac­count, he made a pay­ment over the phone to the fraud­u­lent caller.”

Bo­gus call­ers can make the name of the util­ity ap­pear on a customer’s caller ID. Scam­mers have also im­proved their abil­ity to du­pli­cate voice record­ings. “Some … are pretty con­vinc­ing,” Den­ni­son said. “A scam­mer who pro­vided a call-back num­ber even used voice prompts that were recorded from SMECO’s phone sys­tem.”

So what’s a per­son to do to keep from get­ting robbed over the phone or com­puter? Fran­chot says the IRS never calls peo­ple de­mand­ing pay­ment.

And Den­ni­son said SMECO has a spe­cific pro­to­col for con­tact­ing cus­tomers. He guar­an­tees that any un­known caller who gives an ur­gent dead­line and threat­ens to cut off elec­tric­ity within an hour or two does not work for SMECO. The util­ity will al­ways mail a ter­mi­na­tion no­tice if pay­ment is past due. Den­ni­son said SMECO calls cus­tomers who owe a past-due bal­ance us­ing an au­to­mated phone sys­tem with a recorded mes­sage. Fur­ther­more, he said, be­fore ser­vice is ter­mi­nated, a SMECO col­lec­tor will knock on the customer’s door first.

As al­ways, a lit­tle com­mon sense goes a long way to ward off scam­mers and phish­ers. Don’t give out per­sonal or ac­count in­for­ma­tion, user names or pass­words to unau­tho­rized call­ers or email­ers. And never agree to meet a caller or emailer at a bank or store to dis­cuss a bill or pay­ment.

If you’re in doubt about the le­git­i­macy of a call about elec­tri­cal ser­vice, hang up and call SMECO’s 24-hour con­tact cen­ter at 1-888-440-3311, or see smeco.coop/stop-scams. Those who sus­pect an IRS scam should call 1-800366-4484 or see www.irs.gov/uac/ re­port-phish­ing.

Be smart. Be care­ful. Stop the crooks be­fore they can start.

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