What You Need to Know About Utility Scams

April 29, 2020

By: Esther Heymans

During the pandemic, the phone became a lifeline for many people stuck at home with limited interaction with the outside world. It became the only way a lot of families and friends could stay connected during stressful times. However, loved ones weren’t the only ones picking up the phone. With the boom in technology, utility scammers started booming as well.

Utility scams have been common in the United States and Canada for quite some time, but this time of upheaval has allowed scammers increasing opportunities to prey on individuals and businesses. Monica Martinez of Utilities United Against Scams explained the increased threat of scams during the pandemic on episode 2 of The Current. “Right now, people are worried, they’re at home, they’re working, their lives are in a little bit more upheaval so we’re seeing stress and these scams are more likely to come forward and we might not recognize them as easily.”

Many people live under the assumption that utility scammers only target the elderly, but the reality is that their targets are much broader. Scammers target both residential and business customers and the demographic of those being scammed has changed drastically since the start of the pandemic. Small essential businesses that kept their doors open during shutdowns have been increasingly targeted. “One of the things that we do know is that the scammers will go out and target those customers that might have English as a second language,” Martinez added. Scammers want to target those who might not fully understand the implications of the call they receive and are therefore more likely to fall for the scam.

Most utility scams take place over a phone. Scammers usually call pretending to be from the utility company threatening to shut off your connection if you don’t immediately pay your bill. They will ask for credit card or account information or ask you to send a prepaid card. It’s understandable why people fall for these scams. “Getting a phone call saying your utility might be shut off is kind of scary,” said Martinez. During the pandemic, many scammers have adapted so that it is even harder to tell real calls from fake. Many scammers now say they are working from home to excuse the fact that they are calling from an unknown number.

There are a few things you should know to keep yourself safe from utility scams. The first is that legitimate utility companies will never demand payment over the phone. Utilities have clear outlines of how they will communicate about payment with you and asking for credit card information over the phone is not one of them. If you are on the phone with someone you do not recognize who claims to be from the utility, the best practice is simply to hang up. You can always call your utility back at their legitimate number and check on the status of your account.

If you think you might be targeted by a scammer, the first step is to call your utility company. Take down any information that you may receive from that scammer and report it to your utility company. Utility companies have partners that can assist with shutting down those numbers. You can also report it to the Federal Trade Commission through their website.

Utility companies are working hard to combat scams. Awareness of how scammers operate is key to protecting customers. Many utilities in the US and Canada have joined forces to create Utilities United Against Scams. “Utilities United against Scams is a consortium of over 140 utilities across the country. They include both natural gas, electric, water utilities, all the way from your big utilities to your small municipal utilities,” explained Martinez.

Utilities United Against Scams has a wealth of resources on their website and social media pages all designed to raise awareness of the impacts of utility scams.

To hear more about Utilities United Against Scams listen to episode 2 of “The Current” podcast!

Episode 2: In this episode Brad speaks with Monica Martinez of Utilities United Against Scams about some of the fraudulent activities that citizens should be wary of particularly under the various shelter at home orders and how people can protect themselves and their loved ones.