By Charlotte Lane
Chair, West Virginia Public Service Commission
National Utility Scam Awareness Day was Wednesday, Nov 17. The observance may only last one day, but awareness of utility scams must be all year long. Thousands of utility scams happen every day all over the country, including here in West Virginia. Scammers often target the elderly, but anyone can be a victim.
The Public Service Commission frequently takes calls from utility scam victims, but unfortunately there is not much we can do to help. We can however, help you recognize a scam and report it properly.
There are three main elements to most utility scams. Usually someone will contact you to say that your utility bill is seriously past due and demanding a large sum of money – at least several hundred dollars. They will threaten to disconnect your service if you don’t pay.
The second indication of a scam is the request for a prepaid debit card or gift card. No legitimate utility will ever ask you to pay by this method. Once you give them the card number the scammer has immediate access to the funds you put on the card. That money cannot be traced or refunded, it is simply gone. Do not give scammers your bank or credit card information. That is a gateway to identity theft, which can cost you far more than just cash. It can ruin your credit for years.
The third hint you are talking to a scammer is a demand that you pay immediately. The scammer will give you a short amount of time in which to arrange payment. Often they will threaten to disconnect your service if you don’t meet their demands in less than an hour.
Scammers are extremely aggressive. They may call you on the phone or come to your door. There are internet and email scams, but most utility scammers seem to prefer in-person contact because it is much easier to pressure their victims. If someone threatens you on the phone, hang up immediately. If they come to your home, shut and lock the door and call the police. Never let anyone who is being pushy or threatening into your home.
If you believe you have been targeted by a utility scam, immediately report it to the police and then contact your utility company.