Every day, electric and natural gas customers throughout the country are being targeted by utility scams. These imposters typically target customers online, in-person and by telephone. And, this year is even worse due to the ongoing financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. PG&E is taking a stand against scammers by joining its fellow electric, natural gas, water utilities and Utilities United Against Scams (UUAS) in helping customers recognize potential bad actors during Utility Scam Awareness Week from November 16-23, 2020.
UUAS, a consortium of more than 145 U.S. and Canadian electric, water, and natural gas utilities and their respective trade associations, continues to create awareness of common scams and new scam tactics being used during the COVID-19 pandemic. Through its work, UUAS has succeeded in taking nearly 9,500 toll-free numbers used by scammers against utility customers out of operation.
“Scammers are constantly changing their tactics and tricks, so awareness is more important than ever to keep our customers safe,” said Laurie Giammona, PG&E’s chief customer officer. “If an email, visit to your home or phone call doesn’t feel right, don’t fall for it. Delete it, shut the door or hang up. And, as a reminder, PG&E will never ask for your financial information over the phone or via email.”
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, scammers have increased calls, texts, emails, and in-person tactics and are constantly contacting utility customers asking for immediate payment to avoid service disconnection. As a reminder, PG&E will never contact a customer for the first time within one hour of a service disconnection, and will never ask customers to make payments with a pre-paid debit card, gift card, any form of cryptocurrency, or third-party digital payment mobile applications.
“It is no surprise that scammers have been trying to take advantage of the anxiety of people coping with the pandemic,” said UUAS Founder and Executive Committee Chairman Jared Lawrence. “I am proud to report that UUAS’ education efforts and utilities’ well-publicized practices have prevented a large increase in victims. However, the continuing attempts by these criminals make it clear that we must continue to work to protect our customers.”
Scammers can be convincing and often target those who are most vulnerable, including senior citizens and low-income communities. They also aim their scams at small business owners during busy customer service hours. However, with the right information, customers can learn to detect and report these predatory scams.
Signs of a potential scam
Threat to disconnect: Scammers may aggressively demand immediate payment for an alleged past due bill.
Request for immediate payment: Scammers may instruct the customer to purchase a prepaid card then call them back supposedly to make a bill payment.
Request for prepaid card: When the customer calls back, the caller asks the customer for the prepaid card’s number, which grants the scammer instant access to the card’s funds.
Refund or rebate offers: Scammers may say that your utility company overbilled you and owes you a refund, or that you are entitled to a rebate.
How customers can protect themselves
Customers should never purchase a prepaid card to avoid service disconnection or shutoff. PG&E does not specify how customers should make a bill payment and offers a variety of ways to pay a bill, including accepting payments online, by phone, automatic bank draft, mail or in person at an authorized PG&E neighborhood payment center.
If a scammer threatens immediate disconnection or shutoff of service without prior notification, customers should hang up the phone, delete the email, or shut the door. Customers with delinquent accounts receive an advance disconnection notification, typically by mail and included with their regular monthly bill.
Signing up for an online account at pge.com is another safeguard. Not only can customers log in to check their balance and payment history, they can sign up for recurring payments, paperless billing and helpful alerts.
Scammers getting even “trickier”: Scammers are now able to create authentic-looking 800 numbers which appear on your phone display. The numbers don’t lead back to PG&E if called back, however, so if you have doubts, hang up and call PG&E at 1-800-743-5000. If customers ever feel that they are in physical danger, they should call 911.
Customers who suspect that they have been victims of fraud, or who feel threatened during contact with one of these scammers, should contact local law enforcement. The Federal Trade Commission’s website is also a good source of information about how to protect personal information.
UUAS is dedicated to combating impostor utility scams by providing a forum for utilities and trade associations to share data and best practices, in addition to working together to implement initiatives to inform and protect customers.
For more information about scams, visit www.pge.com and www.utilitiesunited.org.