More fraudsters are trying to trick utility customers. Here are 5 ways to protect yourself.

Scammers will try just about anything to get their hands on your money.

Since the start of the pandemic, utilities have reported an increase in fraudsters who impersonate a utility in an attempt to trick unsuspecting customers. Indeed, impersonation scammers will say just about anything to scare you into giving up personal information and payments that will be very hard, if not impossible, to get back.

This week is Utility Scam Awareness Week, and Utilities United Against Scams (UUAS), a consortium of more than 150 U.S. and Canadian electric, water and natural gas utilities, is trying to get the word out and help consumer protect themselves.

Here are five tips so you don’t fall victim.

1. When the phone rings, be wary.

If someone initiates contact with you, no matter who they say they represent, never give out your personal information, including your Social Security number, birth date or bank information.

You should also never respond to texts or emails that ask for your information. Same if someone knocks on your door, even if they have identification. It could be phony.

“If your utility leaves you a message or contacts you by phone, it will typically ask to speak to the person whose name is listed on the account, and if you call your utility, it may ask for some personal information to confirm your identity for your protection,” UUAS says on its website. “Never give out information or provide any payment type to any callers or unexpected individual(s) appearing at your home or business claiming to represent your utility. Your utility will have your relevant personal and account information.”

2. Don’t be rushed.

It’s a red flag if you get a message that says you need to make a payment immediately to stop your service from being disconnected.

If you’re not sure that the contact is legit, simply call your utility directly — using the number on your bill, not any numbers that are provided by the caller, emailer or texter — to verify that the payment request is real.

And this is not the time to be overly polite.

“It’s perfectly acceptable for the customer to hang up the phone. The scammer’s initial goal is to pressure their targets and convince them that they work for the utility,” said Monica Martinez, executive director of UUAS, in a statement. “Scammers are extremely sophisticated in their tactics, and, by simply ending the call, you can end their scam. If you are unsure, you can always call back the utility by dialing the number found on your bill or on their website, and they will provide you with the correct information.”

3. Verify.

If you think a caller could be legit, ask them to provide information that you can verify, such as the date and amount of your last payment and your account number.

“If he/she is a legitimate utility representative, this information will be readily accessible. If not, hang up or shut the door, and call your utility,” UUAS said.

4. Report the scam.

If you get a call, text or email, or if someone unexpected comes to your door who you think may be a scammer, report it to your utility.

Give them any information you have, such as the caller ID or email address the communication came from and what the scammer told you.

It will help the utility warn others.

5. Only pay your utility directly.

Don’t attempt to make a payment over the phone, text or email if you didn’t initiate the contact.

Always call your utility company at the number on your bill.

You should also know your utility bill payment options, such as online, by phone, automatic bank draft, mail or in person.

“Never wire money or give the number from a prepaid card to someone you do not know. Once you do, you cannot get your money back,” UUAS said. “Be suspicious if the caller is requiring the use of a specific payment option, like a prepaid card, as utilities never ask or require a customer to purchase a prepaid card to avoid disconnection.”

Also know that utilities won’t ask for payments using prepaid debit cards, gift cards, cryptocurrencies or third-party digital payment mobile apps. You’ll also receive multiple notices before service is disconnected.

You can learn more about how to protect yourself on the UUAS website.

Please subscribe now and support the local journalism YOU rely on and trust.

Karin Price Mueller may be reached at [email protected].