While the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the heroism of doctors, nurses and others who protect the public, it has also brought out scam artists to prey on consumers, including some who are trying to take advantage of co-op members.
Since the mid-March lockdown, electric cooperatives in at least two states, Kentucky and Iowa, have reported a rise in scammers posing as employees. The imposters call members' homes threatening to disconnect electric service without immediate payment by a prepaid money card.
“It's been widespread, and it's hit different co-ops at different times during the pandemic, but we've seen almost all of our [24 distribution] co-ops at some point reporting scam attempts," said Joe Arnold, vice president of strategic communications at
Kentucky Electric Cooperatives in Louisville. “And, of course, we're only hearing about the ones that consumer-members call us about."
Iowa co-ops reported a rise in scams in mid-June, shortly after the state's Utilities Board allowed electricity disconnections for nonpayment to resume. Gov. Kim Reynolds had prohibited utility disconnections from mid-March until late May, when she lifted the ban.
“All of a sudden, [the scammers] just came out of the woodwork," said Erin Campbell, director of communications at the
Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives in Des Moines. “The timing was just so interesting because that just happened to be the same month that co-ops were resuming disconnects for nonpayment."
Officials at both statewide associations said they were unaware of any members losing money, and that's likely because they're providing distribution co-ops with more “scam alert" content for social media and traditional outlets. The alerts underscore that co-ops won't threaten immediate disconnection and won't demand members' financial information over the phone.
“We're really trying to get out in front of folks who might be at risk and might be having trouble paying their bills," said Campbell. “Our main message to member-consumers is to reach out to the local co-op if you're under financial stress so we can get a payment arrangement plan in place and prevent that disconnection for nonpayment."
Scammers are deploying a variety of tactics, including spoofing the caller ID so it appears the call is coming from either a local number or an electric co-op. In one instance, according to Arnold, a co-op reported that an imposter called a member wanting to check a meter inside the home. And, in another case, a member was told to go to a nearby Dollar General store to pick up a “money packet."
The scams reported by Kentucky co-ops caught the attention of Gov. Andy Beshear, who issued an alert on May 11 about the growing number of schemes targeting members during the pandemic.
“As a result of co-ops' proactive messaging, [Gov. Beshear] echoed our message and put a message out to everyone in the midst of all this to say that co-ops are being targeted, so don't fall for it," said Arnold.
Straight Talk has created a new set of social media graphics that focus on four different types of utility scams. Download social graphics, design files and sample posts that you can customize for your co-op.