Jennifer Koukos was at home in Lake Placid, Florida, when her phone rang. On the other end, a woman asked to talk to whoever was in charge of the electric bill.
She had some bad news: Jennifer’s electric rates had increased. But she was offering good news. Because of the rate increase, Jennifer was eligible for a tax credit.
Jennifer had some bad news for the caller, too. The woman had called the wrong person. As chief communications officer for Glades Electric Cooperative, Jennifer knew everything about the call was wrong.
“Our rates had actually decreased twice in the preceding two months,” Jennifer says.
The woman never identified herself as being with GEC or any utility. But she portrayed herself as someone who could help.
“I know anyone calling me from our co-op,” Jennifer says. “I never once thought she might be from GEC, but I did know whatever she was offering or trying to get out of me was a scam because of the inaccurate statements she was making to me.”
Jennifer was on the receiving end of a phone scam that has become all too common in recent years. The identity theft scam starts when the perpetrator asks for personal information, such as the names of residents, address, Social Security numbers or account passwords.
As an electric utility employee, Jennifer knew the facts and had the information needed to combat it.
“I was concerned she’d contact our members and give them false information about our rates,” Jennifer says.
These scams are becoming more frequent, according to Elecia Copenhaver, marketing and communications coordinator for Benton Rural Electric Association, based in Prosser, Washington.
“The most typical scam we see is the kind where they call you and say, ‘You owe X amount on your bill. If you don’t pay it immediately, we will shut off your electricity,’” Elecia says.
Scammers attempting the “immediate payment” con will often ask for payment in the form of wire transfers, prepaid debit cards, gift cards or other untraceable forms of currency. While the average consumer may normally be savvy enough to see through the ruse, these criminals use fear tactics to prevent utility members from thinking the situation through.
Utilities don’t go door-to-door to collect payment, but scammers do. Some will go as far as renting a service truck with tools and tell you they are prepared to cut your power if they don’t receive payment immediately. That kind of in-your-face pressure can be scary and get the better of a lot of people.
If a real utility worker comes to your door or says anything about your meter, the worker already will know your name.
“Never give out any personal information to a stranger at your door or over the phone,” Elecia says. “If you are ever hesitant or feel like they may not be who they say they are, just shut the door or hang up the phone and call your utility to verify who they are.”
If there was an actual problem with a payment, letters from the utility would have arrived in the mail long before the threat of power being disconnected. Your utility would never surprise you with that information at your doorstep.
Despite utilities’ best efforts, a portion of the community is particularly susceptible to these types of scams.
“Our senior members tend to fall for it a little more often than the rest,” says Courtney Cobb, communications coordinator for Central Electric Co-op, based in Redmond, Oregon. “They tend to be more trusting, and these scammers go out of their way to target them and take advantage. If you have older family members, check in on them from time to time and remind them that scammers are out there. We need to take a more proactive, rather than a reactive, approach to protecting our seniors from these people.”
“Renewable energy scams are starting to become popular,” Courtney adds. “These people will call or come to your door asking for money to invest in solar or wind. Sometimes it’s an identity theft scam where they ask you for your information. Some of it is asking for prepaid debit cards to be mailed to them. It is all the same scam. They just change the story.”
To combat energy scammers, report incidents to your utility and law enforcement immediately.
“If your utility company is calling you, they have your name and address,” Jennifer says. “This isn’t information we would ask for over the phone. If we are billing you, we know who you are. Do not provide personal information to anyone contacting you over the phone. Hang up and call your utility directly if you have any doubts about the legitimacy of a call.”