Who You Gonna Call? Scam Busters!

Scams preying on electric cooperative members appear to be on the rise in several states, with one attorney general joining co-ops and others to warn the public about phone calls from fake utilities.

Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan (at microphones) joins officials from the state’s electric co-ops and others to launch the “Scam Buster” campaign. (Photo By: Natalie Silver)

Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan (at microphones) joins officials from the state’s electric co-ops and others to launch the “Scam Buster” campaign. (Photo By: Natalie Silver)

Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan partnered with Vermont utilities, residents and businesses to launch the "Scam Buster" campaign. The public awareness initiative seeks to protect residents from bogus utilities threatening service shut-offs in exchange for quick payment for electricity with a credit card, pre-paid card or money order.

"Protecting Vermonters is the No. 1 focus of our office," Donovan told a May 31 press conference in Williston. "Our team is working with local businesses and utilities to raise awareness. If any Vermonter is not sure about who is on the other end of the phone, they should not make a payment and call the AG office or their local utility."

At Washington Electric Cooperative, scammers have bilked a few members over the past four years, but none recently, said Patty Richards, general manager of the East Montpelier-based co-op, who appeared with Donovan.

"And those are only the ones we hear about," she said. "For every one call, there may be 10 others."

Scammers are becoming more tech savvy by making it appear they're calling from local area codes or telephone exchanges. At the press conference, a customer from Green Mountain Power said the utility's name appeared on her caller ID, prompting her to take the call.

"The area code in all of Vermont is 802, so if it pops up on your caller ID, you think it's someone you know," said Richards. "Anyone can be taken advantage of. The sophistication and frequency are growing, which is part of the reason why I think the attorney general is getting involved."

Because scammers are hard to catch, co-ops, investor-owned utilities and municipal utilities "are working in cooperation with each other and sharing information," said Andrea Cohen, manager of government affairs and member relations at Vermont Electric Co-op in Johnson.

"Sometimes it takes two or more times for the message to sink in with members," Cohen said in a post-news conference interview. "Protect yourself, be vigilant, and confirm with your provider."

Elsewhere, co-op members are reporting other types of fraud. At Mid-Carolina Electric Cooperative in Lexington, South Carolina, several members have reported a man wearing an MCEC badge claiming to be a solar provider working in partnership with the co-op. The man, who drives a white unmarked van, solicits members to set up appointments to discuss solar installations.

"In one of our most-read posts, we reminded our members through social media that Mid-Carolina Electric Cooperative has no such partnerships with any solar providers nor will we ask to enter your home. We want our members to not only be aware of the recent scam activity but also to remain diligent and safety minded by notifying local law enforcement agencies of any suspected scam activity," said Troy Simpson, vice president of member services.

Scammers are even offering rebates for good payment history to members of least two Oklahoma co-ops.

Randy Cloyd, office manager at Southeastern Electric Cooperative in Durant, Oklahoma, said one of their members targeted by phone "knew something was wrong."

"She did the right thing, ended the conversation," said Cloyd, who later called the local sheriff's office. "If we were going to give her a rebate, we'd let her know."