Portland, Ore. — Portland General Electric and Pacific Power are working together to spread awareness and tips to help utility customers avoid becoming a victim of scams. PGE estimates scammers have cost its customers at least $45,000 so far in 2020, and about $340,000 since 2013.
Scammers are taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to target those who are most vulnerable and who may be particularly worried about potential disruption of their service. Anyone can be a target, although they often prey on senior citizens, low-income families, non-English speakers and small business owners. With the right information, customers can learn to detect fraudulent activity.
"We don't want anyone to fall victim to this kind of fraud," said John McFarland, PGE vice president for customer solutions. "If you receive one of these calls, texts or emails don't give them any information. If you're unsure, call your utility directly to check your account status and ask about payment arrangements if you need help with your bill."
Thieves impersonating electric company employees use phone calls, texts, social media messages, emails and sometimes even knock on doors to reach potential victims. The impostors threaten to disconnect service immediately unless a payment is made within a short timeframe, usually with a prepaid credit card or even Bitcoin. These payments are not traceable and give the scammer instant access to the victim’s money.
“These scammers exploit the trust of the community at a time of uncertainty,” said William Comeau, vice president of customer experience for Pacific Power. “We have been helping our customers during this difficult time by suspending disconnections, waiving late fees and providing more flexible payment arrangements.”
PGE and Pacific Power encourage customers to be aware of these tips to protect themselves against scams:
When in doubt, check it out! Contact the utility company to verify account information and status if someone threatens you with immediate disconnection. Use the phone number on your monthly bill or from the utility company’s website – not a number provided by the suspected scammer.
During the COVID-19 crisis, PGE and Pacific Power have temporarily stopped disconnecting service for non-payment and collecting late fees and are urging customers who may be having trouble paying their monthly bills to contact their customer service representatives directly for help.
Even during normal business conditions, customers will never receive just a single notification with one hour or less to respond. A legitimate utility company employee will allow customers to call the office to ask questions and discuss arrangements.
Legitimate utility companies will never ask for payment via prepaid or pre-loaded credit card. Utility companies offer a variety of ways to pay a bill, including online or by phone. Customers should never agree to purchase and pay with a prepaid card to prevent an immediate shutoff.
If someone comes to the door saying they’re from your utility, ask to see the employee’s badge. A legitimate utility employee will have an official badge with their name, photo, company logo and contact information. If customers feel threatened or uncomfortable, they should not open the door. They should call 911 if at any point they are concerned about their safety.
Scammers rely on their victim’s uncertainty and panic over the prospect of having their power cut off to make them act without thinking the situation through. Stop, think and verify.