If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
However, the promise of free money is luring many utility customers into a fraudulent payment scheme that can get them in trouble.
Since the beginning of July, more than 140 Alabama Power customers have followed the advice of websites and videos that promise payment from “The Bureau of Public Debt.” The premise is that your Social Security number is all that you need to unlock payment from a “corporate account” that was established in your name.
“No such ‘Bureau of Public Debt’ exists. No such accounts exist,” said Alabama Power Revenue Accounting Manager Mark Patterson.
Patterson said this is not the same as previous scams, as no third party is collecting Social Security numbers or personal data to use for identity theft. However, when the bank kicks back bogus payment information, it does trigger consequences for a customer’s account with the utility.
“When a payment is rejected, those customers gets notified that they have a very short period of time to make good on the balance, or else they risk disconnection of service,” said Patterson. “This is standard practice for any rejected payment.”
The sites and videos promise that all you need is a routing number from a Federal Reserve Bank to tap into your account. So many people are using these routing numbers that the Federal Reserve has issued a consumer alert:
Recently, the Federal Reserve Banks have received a number of unauthorized transactions in which consumers have tried to use the Fed’s routing numbers and their Social Security numbers to pay their bills.
It is important for consumers to know that when making online or e-check bill payments, they cannot use Federal Reserve routing numbers. Federal Reserve routing numbers are used for sorting and processing payments between banks. Any video, text, email, phone call, flyer, or website that describes how to pay bills using a Federal Reserve Bank routing number or using an account at the Federal Reserve Bank is a scam.
As of July 19, more than 500 customers across the Southern Company system had tried this method, and had payments rejected.
“The people attempting this may not realize it, but they are being given instructions on how to perpetrate a fraud,” said Scott Stover, Alabama Power security manager. “We don’t know that they’re aware of it in those terms, but there are consequences.”
Alabama Power recommends that you call and verify before attempting any new method of paying a bill. “Our customer service representatives often know which agencies are legitimate and can help our customers,” said call center Supervisor Cassandra Coleman. “The last thing we want is for customers who are already having struggles to find themselves with a new challenge.”
The Alabama Power call center is always open at 800-245-2244.