New Utility Scam Making the Rounds

Written by Estero Bay News

August 26, 2022

As if the real cost of electricity isn’t bad enough, scam artists are trying to bilk unsuspecting customers of Pacific Gas & Electric Co., out more of their hard-earned money.

PG&E officials are warning about a new scam that is making the rounds and connected to the company’s relatively new, “SmartMeter Program.”

“In recent weeks,” reads the company’s news alert dated Aug. 8, “PG&E has received dozens of reports on an emerging scam: utility impostors demanding immediate payment for a SmartMeter deposit to avoid disconnection. 

“As the number of these scam attempts targeting utility customers continue at an alarming rate, Pacific Gas and Electric Company wants to help customers recognize the signs of a scam so that they can avoid falling victim.”

In this latest swindle, “Scammers are contacting customers via both email and phone, falsely telling them that their utility meter needs to be replaced and that immediate payment of a deposit is required to avoid disconnection.”

PG&E Region Vice President, Teresa Alvarado, said, “Scammers are constantly changing their tactics to target unsuspecting victims, and this latest scam campaign is another example of that. 

“Please remember, if you receive a call from someone claiming to represent PG&E who is threatening disconnection if you do not make immediate payment, just hang up and call PG&E at 1-833-500-SCAM or log into your PGE.com account to confirm your account details and balance.”

The scammers are trying tactics that the company would never do, like make threats and demand payment over the phone. “PG&E will never ask you for your financial information over the phone or via email,” Alvarado said, “nor will we request payment via pre-paid debit cards or other payment services like Zelle.” 

“So far in 2022,” the company said, “in San Luis Obispo County, 111 customers reported scam contacts, with the highest number in Paso Robles where 25 scam reports were counted. 

“In Northern Santa Barbara County, where PG&E provides electric service, 84 customers reported scam contacts so far in 2022, with the highest number in Santa Maria at 69.”

And while this trend is spiking, the company said, “It is only part of an increased number of scam reports seen by PG&E during 2022. Year to date, PG&E has received more than 7,200 reports from customers who were targeted by scammers impersonating the company, marking a dramatic increase over 2021 when there were just over 11,000 reports for the entire year.”

Are these scams really costly? Yes, according to the company. “In 2021, PG&E customers lost over $600,000 to scammers,” the news release said. “Callers claiming to represent PG&E requesting payment via a pre-paid debit card or payment service like Zelle should be a red flag for customers.”

These crooks take advantage of people when they are vulnerable. “Scammers are opportunistic and look for times when customers may be distracted or stressed,” the release said, “as has been the case during the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time, scammers have increased calls, texts, emails and in-person tactics, and they are constantly contacting utility customers asking for immediate payment to avoid service disconnection.

“As a reminder, PG&E will never send a single notification to a customer within one hour of a service interruption, and we will never ask customers to make payments with a pre-paid debit card, gift card, any form of crypto-currency or third-party digital payment mobile applications.”

The company added, “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.”

What are the signs of a potential scam? PG&E has a few tips: 

• Threatens 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 and 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; and,

• 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 can you protect yourself? PG&E has a few of those tips as well:

• 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;

• 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, but they also can sign up for recurring payments, paperless billing and helpful alerts; and,

• Scammers Impersonating Trusted Phone Numbers: 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 1-833-500-SCAM. If customers ever feel that they are in physical danger, they should call 9-1-1.

For more information about utility scams, see: pge.com/scams.

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