Tips on avoid­ing im­pos­tor util­ity scams

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - VOICES & OPINION - By Sheri Givens Sheri Givens is a for­mer state util­ity con­sumer ad­vo­cate for Texas. She is au­thor of “Con­sumer’s Guide to Im­pos­tor Util­ity Scams.” She wrote this for In­sid­

Would you know how to rec­og­nize an im­pos­tor util­ity scam? If you were the vic­tim of a scam, would you know what to do or whom to call?

Na­tional Util­ity Scam Aware­ness Day on Wed­nes­day aims to in­form and em­power con­sumers to pre­vent crim­i­nals, who pre­tend to work for their elec­tric, nat­u­ral gas or wa­ter com­pany from gain­ing ac­cess to their money, prop­erty or per­sonal in­for­ma­tion.

Any­body can be a tar­get of a scam. Scam­mers tend to aim their ef­forts at our more vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tions, in­clud­ing lower-in­come house­holds and el­derly in­di­vid­u­als and com­mu­ni­ties.

How do you iden­tify an im­pos­tor util­ity scam? There are a few com­mon tac­tics that scam­mers tend to use, which in­cludes phone, in-per­son and in­ter­net. Claim­ing to rep­re­sent your util­ity com­pany, scam­mers might call you on the phone threat­en­ing to shut off ser­vice, email or text you re­quest­ing fi­nan­cial or per­sonal in­for­ma­tion, or the scam­mer might knock on your door re­quir­ing pay­ment for an un­nec­es­sary ser­vice or en­try to check an in-home util­ity de­vice. These tac­tics are of­ten aimed at steal­ing your money, us­ing your per­sonal in­for­ma­tion to com­mit iden­tity theft, or rob­bing your home or busi­ness.

Scam­mers now use tech­nol­ogy to their ad­van­tage, in­clud­ing caller iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and email ad­dress spoof­ing, to make you be­lieve you are ac­tu­ally com­mu­ni­cat­ing with some­one from your util­ity com­pany. I have come across nu­mer­ous sto­ries of scam­mers fak­ing their caller ID so that it ap­pears to be a call from the vic­tim’s util­ity com­pany and send­ing emails copy­ing the util­ity com­pany’s logo, for­mat and web­site link. They have also per­fected repli­cat­ing util­ity com­pany iden­ti­fi­ca­tion badges and uni­forms.

An­other method from their crim­i­nal play­book is to call you and de­mand im­me­di­ate pay­ment, typ­i­cally by a pre­paid card bought at a nearby re­tail store, to pre­vent your elec­tric­ity, nat­u­ral gas, or wa­ter from be­ing shut off in the next 30 min­utes. They of­ten take a hos­tile tone and be­come in­creas­ingly ag­i­tated if you ask ques­tions or of­fer to call your util­ity to con­firm your ac­count in­for­ma­tion.

There are some sim­ple steps you can take to make sure crim­i­nals do not suc­ceed in tak­ing your money, be­long­ings or per­sonal in­for­ma­tion. Never buy a pre­paid card with the sole pur­pose of us­ing it to pay your util­ity com­pany. Util­ity com­pa­nies will send you sev­eral ad­vance no­tices, typ­i­cally by U.S. mail, ac­cept mul­ti­ple forms of pay­ment to set­tle your bill, and never shut off your ser­vice im­me­di­ately if your bill is delin­quent. Also, never pay a util­ity com­pany to re­con­nect your ser­vice af­ter an ex­treme weather event as they will typ­i­cally do this for no cost; how­ever, there may be a fee charged to re­con­nect your ser­vice af­ter a dis­con­nec­tion for non-pay­ment.

Never let some­one claim­ing to be a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a util­ity com­pany into your home with­out in­sist­ing on see­ing their iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and ver­i­fy­ing their ap­point­ment with your util­ity. Un­less you have placed a ser­vice call, typ­i­cally, a util­ity com­pany will not come to re­pair, check or in­stall some­thing in or around your home or busi­ness with­out con­tact­ing you in ad­vance. When in doubt, call your util­ity com­pany at the num­ber on your monthly bill or the util­ity com­pany’s web­site — not a num­ber pro­vided by some­one claim­ing to be with your util­ity.

Last, if you are ever asked to ap­ply for a job ei­ther in per­son or via email from a util­ity com­pany, make sure you ver­ify the job op­por­tu­nity with the util­ity com­pany. Never fill out an “ap­pli­ca­tion” with your per­sonal in­for­ma­tion with­out mak­ing sure the open po­si­tion is le­git­i­mate.

If you think you have been the tar­get of an im­pos­tor util­ity scam, con­tact your util­ity com­pany. In­for­ma­tion you pro­vide them is in­valu­able as it helps keep them up-to-date on the lat­est tac­tics scam­mers are us­ing and pro­vides them in­for­ma­tion they may share with law en­force­ment and other part­ners in help­ing shut down scams.

Scam­mers tend to aim their ef­forts at our more vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tions.

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