The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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Money

February 12, 2014

State attorney general warns of scams involving utility payments

Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is warning West Virginia consumers about a scam in which a caller impersonates an electric or gas company representative and threatens to disconnect the customer unless they immediately make a payment.

“Our office has received calls from consumers who have been called by people claiming to be representatives of Appalachian Power and demanding immediate payment,” Morrisey said. “Similar to the scam we saw with Frontier Communications, the caller tells the consumer they are behind on their bill and they need to make an immediate payment. They also may ask for personal information, such as a consumer’s Social Security number.”

In some scenarios, the caller will ask consumers to make the payment with a pre-paid debit card. The caller tells the consumer to purchase the card, and then call back to remit the payment.

“If a caller asks you to do this, that’s a huge red flag,” Morrisey said. “Pre-paid debit cards are like cash, and once that transfer is made to the scammer, the money is gone, and there’s not any way to get it back.”

Morrisey said utilities typically will inform a customer in writing if their bill is in arrears, and company representatives will not accept cash or pre-paid debit cards as payment.

Cold winter temperatures are giving scammers a few ways to prey on consumers. In addition to the billing calls, some scammers may call consumers and tell them they have a faulty gas or electric meter and it must be replaced — at their cost — or the utility will be shut off. Scammers also will send phishing e-mails to consumers asking for personal or billing information.

The attorney general’s office encourages all consumers to be mindful of these tips when receiving calls from someone who purports to be from a utility company:

n Do not feel pressured into paying immediately, and never give the caller personal information right away. Note the necessary information and then verify details with your utility’s customer service number that appears on your bill.

n Remember that electrical and gas meters are property of the company. They are the responsibility of the company to repair or replace at their cost.

n If someone uses high-pressure tactics or bullying to get you to pay a bill, be wary. Hang up and call the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division, as well as the utility, to report the incident.

“It’s important for consumers to keep a cool head when they get unsolicited calls that use high-pressure tactics to get personal information,” Morrisey said. “It’s worth the time to call the service providers directly to verify any amounts that may be owed before handing anything over.”

If you have been contacted by someone who claims to be from a utility and demands immediate payment and/or personal information, hang up and call the utility's customer service number and the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division at 1-800-368-8808.

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