Word to the Wise: Pull the plug on utility bill collection scams

Have you paid your utility bill? Chances are that you have but that isn’t stopping scammers from taking advantage of businesses and consumers by impersonating electric and gas company employees looking to deactivate for nonpayment. Utility companies across the nation are warning their customers of this scam. Scammers will impersonate utility company employees with threats of deactivation of service -- unless they pay up immediately.

Victims report receiving calls and the person on the line identifies themselves as a representative from your local electric or gas company deactivation team. He or she tells you that you are late on your bill and you need to pay immediately, or your utilities will be shut off.

However, instead of accepting payment by credit card or check, the caller wants you to pay by using a prepaid debit card. The scammer instructs you to obtain one and call them back. This is a huge warning sign. Prepaid debit cards are like cash. Once you transfer the money, you will be unable to retrieve it.

Prepaid debit cards are becoming an increasingly popular method of payment for scammers. Wire transfer services have tightened their security, so crooks have turned to these prepaid cards instead. The cards are difficult to trace, and you do not need photo identification to collect or spend the money. Be sure you treat a prepaid debit card like cash and remember that transactions cannot be reversed.

Scammers are also using other ways to prey on utility customers. Some will claim that the electric meter is not working properly and must be immediately replaced -- at the customer’s expense -- or the electricity will be shut off. Other scammers are using email and door-to-door visits to reach customers. Watch out for emails disguised as overdue notices from your utility company. Clicking on a link or attachment will load malware onto your computer.

Because local utility companies do sometimes contact their customers by phone, it can be difficult to tell a scammer from a real agent. Here are some tips:

If a caller specifically asks you to pay by prepaid debit card or wire transfer, this is a huge warning sign. Your utility company will accept a check or credit card and will usually direct you to one of their payment locations.

Don’t cave to pressure to pay immediately: If you feel pressured for immediate payment or personal information, hang up the phone and call the customer service number on your utility bill. This will ensure you are speaking to a real representative.

Remember that electrical meters are the property of the utility company and would be the responsibility of the utility to replace or repair it.

Never allow anyone into your home to check electrical wiring, natural gas pipes or appliances unless you have scheduled an appointment or reported a problem. Also, don’t get lured outside to view broken meters or point out property lines. Always ask utility employees for proper identification.

There is never a shortage of ways for scam artists to try to separate you from your money, but with a little knowledge and a few questions, you might just be the one that gets away.

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Kelvin Collins is president/CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Central Georgia and the CSRA Inc., serving 41 counties in Middle Georgia and the Central Savannah River area. This tips column is provided through the local BBB and the Council of Better Business Bureaus. Questions or complaints about a specific company or charity should be referred directly to the BBB at 478-742-7999, or by emailing