Hang up on phone calls that demand payment for utility bills

CONSUMER FORUM 

Posted Sept. 06, 2015, at 2:38 p.m.

You’ve heard the warnings: Don’t believe that threatening phone calls you receive are the real thing.

The scammers’ ruse is always the same; they tell you that you owe them money, and if you don’t pay up something awful will happen. Lately, they’ve been burning the phone lines posing as people from the billing departments of local utilities.

Click image to contact MPUCA

A customer of a water company in greater Bangor was a target of such a call just last month. Harry Lanphear of the Maine Public Utilities Commission, or MPUC, says the caller cut right to the chase.

“He said if the consumer didn’t get them some money through a prepaid credit card, they would shut off their water,” Lanphear told me last week. The consumer recognized the usual red flags of a scam, ended the call and reported the incident to MPUC.

Regular readers of this column know the red flags. Issuing a threat about service by phone instead of regular mail is one, demanding payment via prepaid credit card or wire transfer is another, and not knowing the customer’s account number or other information is a sure tipoff.

While often short on facts, scam artists tend to be experts in social engineering. They tailor their phone persona to the perceived vulnerabilities of the person on the line. Appealing to the need to “keep your credit record clean” might resonate with some consumers, while a heavy-handed threat could work with others.

Lanphear said his office has heard many complaints about crooks pretending to represent electric utilities

“Given how dependent we are on electricity, I think people just don’t want anything to happen to their service. I think scammers try to take advantage of that,” he said.

MPUC warned consumers recently, issuing these reminders:

— Utilities don’t call customers in good standing saying they have debt needing to be paid immediately.

— Instead of trusting a “cold caller,” hang up and call the utility at the number on your bill; that way, you can verify the status of your account.

— MPUC rules require proper notices regarding disconnection. If you can’t resolve a problem after speaking with their utility, call the MPUC Consumer Assistance Hotline at 1-800-452-4699.

— If you get any phone call demanding immediate payment for any utility or service, it’s likely a scam. Don’t make the payment; instead, report the call to the Maine Attorney General’s Consumer Information and Mediation Services at 1-800-436-2131 or the Federal Trade Commission at 1-877-FTC-HELP.

The FTC reports that some scammers have even shown up at consumers’ homes during power outages, saying they will have the power restored for a cash payment. Don’t fall for that one or for instructions to call a phone number and give account information. And never wire money to anyone you don’t know; when that money goes, it’s gone.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit https://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

 

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