IDShield Scam of the Month: Phony Utility Shut Off Threats
Scam of the Month: Crooks Threaten Power Shut Off Using Your Bill Records
Each month, IDShield spotlights a prevalent or concerning scam of the past few weeks, giving you insights into how scams begin and the ways to detect them.
This past winter's harsh temperatures boosted utility bills all around the country. While most states didn't experience the knockout bills that many Texans received, that doesn't mean consumers aren't struggling to keep up with payments. Being without power is no fun, and in some cases, it could seriously damage your wallet and or your wellbeing.
All this nasty winter weather has given crooks encouragement to tap into those real fears and pocket real cash. Imagine you require home oxygen, and you get a call saying your payment is overdue. Or you run the local tavern, and Friday night is your busy time. A high-pressure phone call at 4 p.m. threatening an instant shut-off can be pretty compelling in instances like these. In reality, it's a shakedown.
The Initial Scam Plan
The primary utility scam has been around for years; it is brief, forceful and designed to trigger panic, so you pay rapidly. Threats and demands arrive by phone, the worker's ID number is suspect, and you won't get time to process these demands. Sadly, this scam is often quite successful due to these factors.
Here's how one Colorado worker described her March 2021 experience on social media:
"Yesterday, at work, I received a call stating "They" were coming out in 30 minutes to disconnect the electricity for non-payment...unless we, of course, did payment over the phone."
The caller wanted $2000 to settle the phony debt.
She added, "Now, I'm the one at work who approves bill payments and knew this to be false. So, I had a little fun with the guy to get details. I did end up asking him if anyone ever fell for his scam, and he said, "Yep, all the time."
Frightening Improvements on That Old Theme
A new "enhancement" in the scammer's arsenal has recently cropped up in Louisiana. It takes utility payment theft to a higher level, using a customer’s own account details against them.
Entergy customers in New Orleans have reported calls from unidentified individuals who already know all about their personal accounts--the last bill amount, payment due dates and more. The data only the utility should know is accurate, too, which adds a significant veneer of authority and believability to the attempted theft.
Initially, targeted residents and businesses were puzzled. How did scammers get their hands on this data? One customer wrote on the company’s Facebook page, “Why can't anyone do anything or at least try to? They are driving me insane. They have stolen my information and my son's.”
Was there a data breach of Entergy records? The company insists there's no evidence of an intrusion. New Orleans' City Council became involved after viewing news reports that documented just how much scammers knew about individual Entergy accounts. The Council President has proposed an audit to determine the cause of the leaks.
If Entergy is not the source of the leak, the Council urged a check of its vendors. The utility outsources its bill payment system and other services. Credential stuffing—the practice of gaining access with login credentials stolen elsewhere—could also explain the leaks.
It’s clear that spoofed caller ID has been used to add even more credibility to the calls.
"Recent reports indicate that the crooked callers are spoofing Entergy's phone number, making it look like the call is coming from Entergy. If they say you are behind on your Entergy bill, hang up immediately," the firm's website now warns. "Then, go check your bill and call Entergy by using the number on the bill, NOT the number on your caller ID."
In many of these scams, the criminal instructs the customer to put money on a pre-paid debit card and then provide card details. If you ask to use a credit card, the faker could get angry or hang up. Do not provide banking details or authorize a debit from your checking account.
Utility rip-offs fall into the imposter scam group. It's the most prominent category reported each year to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), responsible for over $1.3 billion in consumer losses in 2020.
Here are some ways to keep your guard up:
- Fear is the critical ingredient for success; watch for scare tactics.
- If individuals on the other end of the phone get belligerent, they're phonies
- If you or a loved one is between the ages of 20 and 49, you're the top group vulnerable to electric, gas or phone provider scams
- Spread the word in your community about the Louisiana scam variant; it is a compelling twist and quite effective
- Encourage vulnerable neighbors to tell suspected con artists to hold on because their doctor is calling. Then they can contact you and discuss the demands before paying a dime.
Identity theft that creates utility accounts in your name is also a risk; over 10% of all ID theft complaints filed with the FTC involve utilities. IDShield can monitor your PII for exposure in those dark places you never want it to reside. Our monitoring alerts can help you react rapidly, and unlimited counseling sessions can help you to slam the lid on high-risk data leaks.