Would-be criminals have added a new wrinkle in a long-running scam regarding payment of bills: a second language.
The basic deception has remained constant for years – getting an unsuspecting customer to deliver payment to a utility through an untraceable money-pack card. The caller demands payment within a very short time frame, threatening to turn off the power. The call may even spoof the correct name and phone number on the caller ID. But now they are calling Hispanic-owned businesses, and making their threat in Spanish.
A recent wave of those Spanish-language calls has prompted Alabama’s attorney general to issue a warning.
“Scammers posing as bill collectors are unfortunately very common in Alabama,” said Attorney General Steve Marshall. “These scams take many forms, from claiming to be from the IRS, local law enforcement and even the Attorney General’s Office. In this latest case, the scammers say they are from Alabama Power.”
Sometimes, the calls focus on residential customers. This most recent batch of complaints have come from small companies and restaurants, which can be manipulated into giving in for fear of losing business at the last minute.
“The best way to handle these calls is to hang up and alert law enforcement,” Marshall said.
These crooks typically work from overseas, and target certain area codes for a brief time before moving on. Alabama Power is one of many utilities across North America that have formed an organization to educate customers and lobby for help to prosecute. Utilities United Against Scams has a downloadable resource available to help, called the Consumer’s Guide to Impostor Utility Scams.
“Alabama Power will never call you and say your service will be discontinued unless you make an immediate payment over the phone,” said Customer Service Center Manager Tim Bowen. “No employee will ever call and ask you for bank information or a credit card number. No Alabama Power employee will ever come to your door and demand an immediate payment.”
Signs of potential scam activity include:
- Scammers may aggressively tell the customer the utility bill is past due and service will be disconnected if a payment is not made – usually within less than an hour.
- Scammers may instruct the customer to purchase a prepaid card – widely available at retail stores – then call back, supposedly to make a bill payment to the utility company. When the customer calls back, the caller asks the customer for the prepaid card’s number, which grants the scammer instant access to the card funds.
Ways to avoid scams include:
- Customers should never purchase a prepaid card to avoid service disconnection or shutoff. Legitimate utility companies do not specify how customers should make a bill payment, and will always offer ways to pay a bill, including accepting payments online, by phone, automatic bank draft, mail or in person.
- If someone threatens immediate disconnection or shutoff of service, customers should hang up the phone, delete the email or shut their door. Customers with delinquent accounts receive advance disconnection notification, typically by mail and included with their regular monthly bill. Companies never send a single notification one hour or less before disconnection.
- If customers suspect someone is trying to scam them, they should call their utility company at the number on their monthly bill or the company’s website, not the phone number the scammer provides. If customers ever feel that they are in physical danger, they should call 911.