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A spate of scams is targeting utility customers as fraudsters alter their strategies and seek to capitalize on new vulnerabilities created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Members of Polk-Burnett Electric Cooperative in Wisconsin recently reported two unique tactics.
One involved a call from a bogus representative of an investor-owned utility claiming to have taken over the member’s account and demanding immediate payment. During the March 8 telephone incident, the scammer claimed that Xcel Energy had been serving the member since November, said Joan O’Fallon, director of communications at Centuria-based Polk-Burnett EC.
“The member was notified that he was going to be disconnected for nonpayment,” she said, but the member wasn’t fooled and “contacted the co-op to warn others.”
The IOU scam comes on the heels of an earlier ruse in which a fraudster claiming to be with the co-op told a member that she had overpaid her utility bill. To get the refund she was due, she’d need to provide her financial information. She also didn’t fall for the scam, hung up the phone and notified Polk-Burnett EC.
Both times, the co-op used multiple communication channels to alert its members of the scams. Social networking sites “are the fastest and most direct way to make people aware of new scams,” O’Fallon said.
Alert members can stop fraud, too, she said.
“Our members have become helpful in alerting us and others, which is the best defense to put an end to these criminals,” said O’Fallon.
Experts say vigilance is particularly important these days, as fraudsters have adapted their tactics over the past two years to capitalize on consumer vulnerabilities and changes in habits created by the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, scammers are pouncing on the surge in Americans’ dependence on internet communication for things like school, work and commerce.
“People are changing their habits and are more willing to use technology to do more things like online banking,” said Monica Martinez, executive director of Utilities United Against Scams, a consortium of more than 150 utilities and their respective trade associations. “And with that comes technology that makes scammers more and more sophisticated. Add the confusion and concerns around shifts in the economy stemming from the crisis” and it’s a breeding ground for scams.
Martinez said it’s hard to know if scams specific to utilities rose during the pandemic, but numbers from the Federal Trade Commission show that consumer fraud in general spiked during the past two years.
In 2021, about one-fourth of all reported fraud losses stemmed from scams originating on social media. Those scams resulted in $770 million in total losses, which is an 18-fold increase from 2017, according to the agency’s latest Consumer Protection Data Spotlight report. Of those who reported losing money to fraud in 2021, more than 95,000 indicated they were first contacted on social media—more than twice the 2020 number.
SOMOS, the entity that manages toll-free numbers in the U.S., tracks when those numbers are used fraudulently. They often work with UUAS to combat scams, and their collaboration has shut down more than 12,000 phone numbers since 2017.
Catherine Palcic, the company’s head of strategic relations, industry relations and public policy, said 800-number scams reported by utilities spiked in 2019 but have fallen steadily since.
“We can’t necessarily attribute that to a decrease in scam activity as much as we can say that we had a lot more people and a lot more companies reporting to us,” she said.
Martinez said co-ops are effective at shutting down scams because of their good reputation with local media and community members.
Surveillance is critical to deterring scammers, O’Fallon said.
“They’re a crafty bunch. I wish they’d use their intelligence and initiative for good.”