Paying bills online is very common, but unfortunately even something as mundane as paying a utility bill can become a rollercoaster ride now that scammers frequently pose as utility companies. The scam involves a bad actor calling the victim and pretending to be the representative of a utility company and claiming to have encountered a problem with address information or payment method. Using this excuse, the scammer asks the victim for sensitive information that allows the scammer to open a fraudulent bank or credit account using the victim’s information. Additionally, the scammer will often ask the victim to buy gift cards or to wire money directly to them in order to pay a “late fee” or “overdue balance.”
Professional scammers are very good at pretending to be legitimate companies and encountering a mistake on a bill is not out of the ordinary, so it’s easy to fall prey to this scam. Keep these tips in mind to avoid getting swindled.
• If you suspect you received a phony utility company call, hang up and contact the company directly using publicly available phone numbers to verify they were trying to reach you.
• Utility companies may not change your service unless they provide advanced notice. If a company is going to disconnect a service, they will typically let you know at least a few weeks in advance in writing by mail or email. If you receive any phone call claiming an imminent and immediate shut-off of a service, it is a scam. Hang up and contact the company directly using publicly available phone numbers.
• A utility company will never make you feel pressured. If you receive a call pressuring you to wire money or release sensitive personal information, then it is a scam call. Hang up and contact your utility company directly.
• Some scammers have gone as far as to mail customers fake checks claiming to provide a refund for an overpayment on the account. This is a common scam and individuals should be on the lookout for such fake letters. If you receive one, contact your utility company directly and verify that your account has not been compromised.
• A common tactic scammers use is asking victims to buy gift cards or wire money in order to pay an overdue balance. A utility company will never ask you to buy a gift card or wire money. Do not buy a gift card or wire money and immediately hang up on any caller asking you to do so.
• Finally, don’t let yourself be fooled because a scammer calls from a number matching your utility company. Scammers use spoofing technology to display phone numbers that are different from their real numbers. Always verify any call yourself by hanging up and calling the company directly.
If you find yourself at the end of a utility scam, immediately call your utility company and financial institution in case your account is compromised. You can also contact your local non-emergency police line or report it to the Federal Trade Commission. These reports help the FTC and other law enforcement stop any future scams.
As your District Attorney, I’m committed to increasing communication and accessibility between the DA’s Office and the public. I hope these consumer and public safety tips have been helpful.
Summer Stephan is the San Diego County District Attorney.