For years, utility companies have warned of scammers contacting customers, telling them to instantly provide payment or their power will be cut off.
Now, California utilities — and a consortium of nearly 150 North American power companies — say reported incidents have increased since the onset of the pandemic and warn customers to be on guard.
San Diego Gas & Electric has received 806 reports of scams from its customers in the past two years, with estimated losses coming to $513,100.
“It’s really heartbreaking when you hear these stories of people being scammed out of their hard-earned money, hundreds of dollars at a time, sometimes,” said SDG&E spokeswoman Helen Gao.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, an increasing number of utility customers have fallen behind on their payments, perhaps leaving them more vulnerable to high-pressure tactics. In the first quarter of 2021, more than 3.3 million residential customers of the state’s big four utilities had accounts in arrears, according to the California Public Utilities Commission.
The most common scams include:
- Impostors threatening immediate disconnections of electric or gas services for past-due bills unless customers pay immediately
- Scammers demanding customers give them their financial information over the phone
- Insisting on payment with prepaid cards (such as Green Dot MoneyPak), payment apps like Venmo or Zelle or paying with cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin.
SDG&E does not use these payment methods and what’s more, utility officials say they “will never contact customers to tell them they must pay now or risk immediate disconnection.”
Some impostors take an opposite tack — telling customers they have a refund coming from the utility or have overpaid their bills and request personal bank account or credit card information to deliver the refund.
Scammers appear to pick up their pace during the holiday season. Southern California Edison, for example, received reports from customers of attempted or successful phone scams in November and December last year at a rate 40 percent higher compared to the same two months of 2019.
Edison officials also reported instances of scammers saying they’re calling on behalf of a “COVID relief fund,” and if customers pay them half their bill’s balance, they will pick up the other half.
Crooks have also gotten pretty sophisticated. One Edison customer from Long Beach believed the phone call she received came from a legitimate customer service center because the caller put her on hold with background music and then apologized for the delay. The customer ended losing several hundred dollars.
“The scammer’s initial goal is to pressure their targets and convince them that they work for the utility,” said Monica Martinez, executive director of Utilities United Against Scams, a consortium of power companies in the U.S. and Canada that recently wrapped up a campaign to heighten fraud awareness in the industry.
What’s the best strategy to avoid getting conned?
The Federal Trade Commission advises hanging up and calling the utility yourself, using the number on your bill or company website. For SDG&E, the customer service number is (800) 411-7343. If the possible scam is sent via text, don’t respond to it and call SDG&E yourself.
“If you get a call and you’re suspicious, just hang up,” SDG&E’s Gao said, “because you can always call back to SDG&E and verify the information.”
Customers can also notify local law enforcement and the state attorney general’s office about any suspected scam. They can also report it to the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.
As for suspicious activity from someone who shows up in person, know that all SDG&E employees on company business are required to carry a photo ID badge. Since November 2017, SDG&E employees out in the field have company logos embroidered onto their uniforms — not on patches that can be removed and placed on other items of clothing.
When the pandemic first broke out, California placed a moratorium on utilities shutting off power to residential and small business customers who had not paid their bills. But the moratorium ended after Sept. 30.
In July, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation that earmarked $2 billion to help pay customers’ past-due utility and water bills.
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