DES MOINES - Scam artists continue to target Iowans by threatening to disconnect their electric or natural gas service. This year alone, more than 400 Iowans reported a call or encounter with a scam artist to their local utility provider.
Now, as the winter heating season approaches, Gov. Terry Branstad, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and a group of Iowa utilities and utility associations are warning Iowans about common warning signs and trends in each scam attempt.
"The people attempting to scam Iowans are using the fear of going without electric or natural gas service, and they are unscrupulous in their attempts," said Mark Douglas, president of the Iowa Utility Association. "As an industry, we are working hard to help customers avoid getting caught off guard and becoming the next victim."
The scam artists have used a variety of schemes and are primarily targeting customers of various ethnicities. Right now, the most common scam starts with a phone call from the scam artist claiming to represent a customer's utility company and instructing the customer to make an immediate payment to avoid disconnection.
Often, the caller requests that the customer purchase a prepaid debit card and call back with the information from the card. In other situations, the scam artist requests personal credit card information in order to fix a piece of equipment.
While these scams vary and can involve any utility provider, the ways to avoid falling victim are the same.
"Trust your instincts. If you get a strange feeling from the caller, do not provide them any personal information," Branstad said. "The best way to know your utility is on the other end of the line is to call them. When in doubt, hang up on the caller and call the number for your utility."
If customers have concerns about a call they received, they should contact their utility provider. Utility representatives can confirm whether the company contacted the customer and can confirm bill payments, service work or a service call to any address. Beware that scammers can spoof caller-ID displays, which means that they can mask the call's true origin and make it appear as if it the call is coming from a utility company.
Customers should report attempted scams to local law enforcement. They also can notify the Iowa Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division by visiting IowaAttorneyGeneral.gov or 888-777-4590.
Tips for customers:
Do not provide Social Security numbers, credit card or bank account information to anyone who requests that information during an unsolicited phone call or an unannounced visit.
If someone calls claiming he/she represents a local utility provider and demands immediate payment, delayed payment through a Green Dot or pre-purchased card, or personal information, customers should hang up and call the customer service number on their utility bill. Do not give in to a high-pressure caller seeking personal information.
Customers should never allow anyone into their home or business for an unannounced visit to check on electrical wiring, cable or phone lines, natural gas pipes, or appliances unless they scheduled an appointment or are aware of a confirmed problem. Any time a utility employee arrives at the door, customers should require that the employee show proper identification. When in doubt, confirm the visit with the utility company.