When states, including Ohio, deregulated the utility industry, competition among utility companies skyrocketed as each scrambled for new territory and profit opportunities. Some of the marketing techniques used by certain utility brokers have come into question and raised the ire of consumers. It is in this environment that scammers have sneaked in to take advantage of people's confusion over who should be their utility company, how much it will cost and who pays the bill.
The Better Business Bureau has learned that a new utility bill scam is popping up throughout our region and nationally. It’s done through the use of prepaid debit cards.
The BBB has found that the scammers are calling folks and claiming to work for a local utility company. The callers tell people they are late on a utility bill, and their service will be cut off if they don’t pay immediately. Then they instruct people to purchase a prepaid debit card to pay their bill and call them back with the card number. Thieves then cash in the value shown on the card. This is such an innovative scheme that it makes you wonder what is coming next.
Prepaid debit cards have come into favor for scam artists recently because wire transfer services (such as Western Union) have increased their fraud detection systems, making it much more difficult for them to use this once-popular method of stealing money. Scammers also like prepaid debit cards because they are not required to show a photo ID to collect or spend the money on the cards.
The BBB has some suggestions to help you avoid this kind of scam:
1. It’s a red flag if you are asked to pay by “prepaid debit card.” Utility companies usually accept a check or credit card. If you pay with a prepaid debit card, the transaction cannot be reversed. Incidentally, it should be considered a red flag any time you are asked to purchase a prepaid debit card to negotiate a deal.
2. Another red flag is the use of high-pressure tactics, such as threats to cut off your service unless you make an immediate payment. Hang up and then call the customer service number on your utility bill to ensure that you speak with a real representative.
3. If someone comes to your home claiming to be from your utility company, ask for identification. Call the utility company to confirm that it sent someone to your home. Remember, your home is your castle, and you can refuse entry to someone you do not know or trust.
The BBB has also received reports that some swindlers are calling utility customers claiming the federal government will pay for their utility bills or help them pay for it. They, of course, then want your numbers — Social Security, bank account, etc. — so they can drain your account and use your good name for all kinds of things, including ID theft, getting credit and so forth.
One thing is certain: The crooks seem to have a never-ending barrel full of tricks to bilk the unsuspecting.
Neil Winget is the President of the Better Business Bureau serving West Central Ohio. The BBB may be found on the Internet at www.lima.bbb.org.