Utility scams on the rise in North Carolina during COVID-19 pandemic

Investigators

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The COVID-19 pandemic is prompting a huge increase in scams that target utility customers in North Carolina.

Duke Energy said it logged 7,000 utility scam events in 2019. The company said it has already seen 4,800 this year. Many of them involve a new tactic criminals use to steal identities.

It begins with a phone call with someone pretending to work for the utility and spoofing the caller ID. The person says they have good news.

“They are promising customers a refund check if they can confirm their personal details such as birthday or social security number,” said Duke Energy spokeswoman Meghan Miles.

It’s a red flag for a number of reasons — one being that’s not the way utilities generally refund money for an over-payment.

“We apply any sort of refund to our customers’ account,” Miles said. “We will not reach out to confirm any personal information.”

Miles said those kinds of calls are phishing attempts by criminals who hope to trick people into handing over their personal information.

Another scheme involves crooks posing as utility employees and saying they’re going to shut off service. Many people are out of work and struggling to pay bills because of the pandemic. They say power or gas will be shut off within the hour if an immediate payment isn’t made.

“Customers will never receive one single notice letting them know they are in danger of a disconnect,” Miles said. Utilities typically send multiple notices in the mail before disconnecting. However, during the ongoing pandemic, many utilities are suspending disconnections.

“Duke Energy and Piedmont Natural Gas have suspended disconnects due to the pandemic, so any call that threatens to do disconnect power right now is a scam,’’ Miles said.

Criminals have faked caller IDs and even mimicked the voice menus utilities use when scammers give a number to call back. Anyone who gets a call like that should ignore it and go directly to the utility at its number listed online.

When contacting a utility, Miles said employees will say that there are a variety of options a customer has available to them when it comes to making a payment. Sending them money via gift cards and prepaid cards is not an option.

Utilities have banded together to create the Utilities United Against Scams. It is aimed at helping consumers avoid falling victim to a scam. Duke Energy also encourages people to report scams over the phone. You can reach Duke Energy Carolinas at 1-877-777-9898 and Duke Energy Progress at 1-844-388-7425.

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