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BBB: Utility scammers thrive in cold weather

  • Special to The Eagle
  • Published Friday, March 7, 2014, at 12:38 p.m.

Winter weather can mean higher gas and electric bills, the perfect atmospheric conditions for an accumulation of scam attempts.

As Kansans try to cope with the increased expense of those bills, scammers are hard at work making random calls about “overdue bills.” Scammer techniques have gotten more refined and consumers must be especially diligent in order to thwart their schemes.

The most often reported utility scams involve fake phone calls to consumers. So-called “spoofing” software allows crooks to call you with falsely displayed readouts on your telephone’s Caller ID. The days are long gone when you can glance at those displays and feel confident that the name listed is truly the name of the caller or the caller’s business.

Taking a chance that they may actually be contacting a utility consumer who is slightly behind on their payments, the caller will claim that your back payment must be made immediately, or “within an hour.” Recipients of such calls can be caught off balance just enough to become panicky and quickly want to do whatever the scammer is telling them to do. This is always a mistake.

Wire transfer services have tightened their security and scammers have sought out other means of getting payments from their victims.

Though some are still asking for money to be wire-transferred, their new favorite request is that the victim send them payment in the form of a prepaid debit card. They will instruct you to go out and purchase one and then call them back.

Consider such a request to be a gigantic red flag that is warning of a scam attempt and hang up.

New targets

Residential utility customers are not the only ones being targeted by scammers. Businesses also are being called.

One favorite technique for scamming restaurants is to call during the busiest times — when a manager can be especially pressured and harried — and inform the manager or owner that a past due payment must be made within an hour or the utility will be shut off. Of course the payment may only be made with a prepaid debit card.

Scammers are counting on the victim being caught in a vulnerable state.

Spanish-speaking households are also getting caught by the utility scammers, as are other foreign language speakers. Scammers are counting on uncertainty with translation issues — and the vulnerabilities that those uncertainties cause — to intimidate their victims into making spur-of-the-moment decisions to cooperate with the scam.

Another technique being used is for scammers to contact consumers with a claim that a meter is not working properly at their house and must be replaced at the resident’s expense. They threaten shutting off the utility if this is not done.

Emails are being sent on genuine appearing letterheads containing company logos. The emails are phishing attempts that urge customers to click on a link to see their account. The link is actually designed to install malware on the customer’s computer.

What to do

Remember these tips when you suspect a scam is underway:

• Utility companies accept checks and credit cards and do not demand prepaid debit card payments.

• Do not give in to pressure for immediate payment. Instead, hang up and call the utility company’s customer service number as listed on a bill you have received legitimately.

• Meters are the property of the utility company. You do not pay for replacement.

• Ask anyone wanting to check your home for identification.

Denise Groene is state director of the Better Business Bureau of Kansas. Reach the BBB at 800-856-2417 or www.kansasplains.bbb.org.

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