Reghan Winkler: Tips for Avoiding the ‘Utilities Scam’

This is the true story of a woman named Cindy Bailey.

Before I get into her story, let me give you a little insight into Cindy.

Bailey is a 67-year-old retiree, living just west of Rochester, New York, in the small town of Gates. Cindy is the primary carer for her 88-year-old mother, who has dementia and lives just down the street.

A while ago, Cindy’s cell phone rang. She was somewhat puzzled when she saw the caller ID. It flashed “Rochester Gas & Electric”. An online customer service representative claimed that RG&E had not received payments for several months.

Cindy also takes care of her mother’s utility bills. These invoices were also overdue, according to the customer service representative.

The representative said the trucks were on their way to shut off the power to both homes. Bailey told the man that the bills had been paid and the money had already been withdrawn from his account.

The representative replied that RG&E never received their payments. The only way to stop the service trucks was to pay them over $700 immediately to partially settle both accounts and keep the power going.

Not wanting his mother or his own heat and power cut off, Bailey followed the caller’s instructions to buy prepaid debit cards, read the card numbers to them over the phone, and bring both accounts back to black.

Cindy got scammed. Before it was all over, the attackers took $2,100 from her bank account before she decided to contact RG&E to inquire about her bills.

Cindy had used her bank debit card to purchase the prepaid cards she used to pay authors. She filed a claim with the bank to try to get the money back, but the bank denied her claim, saying the transactions had been processed correctly and no errors on their part had occurred.

On February 28, a local consumer called us, reporting that he had received a phone call from someone claiming to be with the power company. Just like in the Cindy Bailey story, our consumer was told his bill was overdue and a truck would be out to disconnect his service in 30 minutes.

Fortunately, our consumer refused to take the bait. The fake representative asked him to give his account number. He refused and asked for the billing service. The representative quickly hung up. Our consumer then called the number on his caller ID and got a woman in a private residence.

Fraudsters love the “utility scam” because residents fear losing their electricity or heat in the winter. Here are some ways to tell if you are about to be scammed:

• Trust your instincts. If you think you’ve already paid the bill, hang up and find a previous bill. Then call the contact number to speak directly with a real utility representative.

• Don’t be fooled by verbal threats to cut your diet without warning. Legit utility companies won’t threaten to cut you off over the phone. The normal procedure is to send several letters before closing it.

• Every time you are asked for payment by gift card, prepaid debit card, bank transfer or cryptocurrency, it’s a scam! Unfortunately for Cindy Bailey, she paid with prepaid debit cards, which made her transactions difficult to trace and receive refunds.

• If asked, never give out your Social Security numbers or any other personal identity or banking information over the phone. Never!

• If you doubt the call is legitimate, hang up and call us at BBB. Our number is 419-223-7010.

Be careful! Don’t be a victim like Cindy Bailey. Protect yourself like our local consumer did.

Reghan Winkler is Executive Director of the Better Business Bureau serving West Central Ohio. The BBB can be found on the Internet at bbb.org/us/oh/lima.