Customer Service

Utilities caution about uptick in attempted scams

Over the past few months, several public power utilities have reported a higher frequency of scamming activity targeting their customers.

Utilities in North Carolina, Nebraska, South Carolina, and New York have been increasing customer outreach to counter the uptick and keep customers educated about how to avoid getting tricked into making payments to scammers.

Scammers are also taking a variety of novel approaches, including through social media. In January, customer service representatives at the Fayetteville Public Works Commission were alerted to a scam involving ads on social media that targeted PWC’s customers.

“This is the first scam we recall being related to or utilizing social media,” said Carolyn Justice-Hinson, communications & community relations officer at the PWC.

Hinson noted that the most common scams are still done via phone and often target their small business customers. She also said that it is common for scammers to target these businesses on the weekends, when they may be more likely to panic about having their electricity cut off. 

“We have a network of employees and customers that are very good at spotting anything representing PWC and reporting if it doesn’t look right,” said Hinson. She said the utility has a process in place for employees to report suspicious activity, which alerts the utility’s communications, customer service, and other departments. “As soon as we are aware of anything that can be a potential scam or threat, we can be proactive in alerting our customers. For instance, within 30 minutes of getting the alert, we were sending warnings out to our customers,” she noted.

Customer education

Upon hearing that other utilities in Nebraska had been seeing more scams, the Lincoln Electric System sent out a press release in January warning customers about the potential for fraudulent activity. According to the release, scammers often conduct operations in bursts, and around high-profile storms that might cause outages.

Kelley Porter, manager of customer and corporate communications at LES, noted that the utility is working on a more in-depth strategy to reach small business owners, especially those who are often more vulnerable to scams, such as business owners whose primary language is not English. 

Scammers target customers fitting this profile in Fayetteville as well.

“We’ve had several times where businesses are targeted that the owners/workers are not fluent in English and they seem to take advantage of them not being able to fully understand,” said Hinson.

Hinson said that the Fayetteville PWC created a scam campaign several years ago that includes ads, rack cards, and social media messages that helps the utility proactively warn customers to be alert. “Our customer base turns over about 20% each year so these messages are in a constant rotation,” said Hinson. 

Santee Cooper in South Carolina alerted customers to activity in both January and February regarding scammers mimicking Santee Cooper’s phone number in their outreach. The state-owned utility has a page on its website warning customers about signs of fraud that includes a variety of educational materials, including a bill insert graphic and a video, that explain how to spot fraudulent activity and avoid being taken advantage of for scams.

The Long Island Power Authority, which contracts with PSEG Long Island on its transmission and distribution operations, also reported an uptick in scam attempts in January and February 2020. A press release from PSEG Long Island cited about a 60% increase in scam calls reported to the utility between 2018 and 2019. However, the utility noted a decrease in reported calls that resulted in customers losing money to the scammers, which it attributed to awareness campaigns.  

Common among the utility messaging is an explanation of when and how the utility will contact customers about shut offs, acceptable payment methods (and those which are red flags, such as prepaid cards), and advice to call the utility’s customer service center directly with any questions.

In addition to reporting the scam to the utility, LES recommends that customers report suspicious activity to local law enforcement and to the Nebraska Attorney General’s office.