Thursday, September 24, 2020
Sept. 24, 2020

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Energy Adviser: Scammers posing as utility representatives

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Efforts to slow the coronavirus turned people’s lives upside down overnight.

Many Clark County residents suddenly found themselves without a paycheck and were forced to choose which bills to pay and which to put off.

To most, the pandemic and its personal and economic fallout has been a tragedy, but scammers are using it as an opportunity. They’re exploiting the trust Clark Public Utilities customers have in their utility to attack unsuspecting people during a vulnerable period in their lives.

“Clark Public Utilities stopped all service disconnections for the duration of this public health emergency,” said Customer Service Manager Robert Hill. “Anyone who claims to be from our utility and threatens to shut off the power is a fraud–pure and simple.”

It’s a sophisticated grift. Scammers spoof the Clark Public Utilities customer service system and threaten their target with disconnection if they don’t immediately pay a sum equal to about a few months’ worth of bills.

When it happens, the caller ID reads “Clark Public Utilities” along with its customer service phone number. Either an automated voice or a real person is on the line, who warns the customer they’re behind on their bills and have just minutes to pay up, otherwise their service will be disconnected.

“It’s a very convincing attack,” Hill said. “Scammers often call when you’d least expect it, in the evenings or early mornings, sometimes on the weekend. The automated voice system sounds like ours and the person who gets on the line knows the target’s name, address and asks them to verify their account number.”

Pay close attention and several red flags appear. The largest of all being the payment method. Scammers usually direct their targets to go to a store and purchase prepaid gift, debit or “green dot” cards, then call a specific phone number to make the payment. Again, the automated system sounds just like the utility’s. Then a scammer gets on the phone, gets the card information and hangs up.

“To be clear, Clark Public Utilities will never demand a payment method like that,” Hill said.

Unfortunately, by the time the victim realizes they’ve been had it’s too late. Scammers request payment from preloaded cards because they’re practically untraceable and the transactions nearly impossible to stop.

Customers can and should file a police report as well as file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, but it’s highly unlikely they’ll get that money back.

As a public utility, Clark Public Utilities cannot reimburse customers who’ve fallen for a fraud.

In normal times, the utility may notify customers of a pending service disconnection with notices, a call or a visit to the home, but only as a last resort and never as a surprise. And a utility employee will always be respectful and willing to provide ID or wait while a customer calls 360-992-3000 to confirm account status.

Customers should always keep their guard up whenever someone claiming to be from the utility contacts them — in person or over the phone. If it ever happens, hang up or close the door and call the utility directly to verify the contact was made by an actual employee. That is especially critical during this declared public health emergency because the utility is not doing any disconnections due to late payment.

“A utility employee will never argue or hesitate to share identification because a customer wants to be cautious,” Hill said. “We also hope customers spread the word about these scams to friends, family and neighbors so nobody falls victim. For customers who know they’re behind on utility bills, we ask they call us right away to make arrangements or discuss assistance options. We’ve made more resources available to help customers through the pandemic.”

Clark Public Utilities customer service representatives are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year at 360-992-3000. More information on protecting yourself from scams is available at clarkpublicutilities.com.

Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to ecod@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.

Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to ecod@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.

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