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Past due on bill? Scammers threaten power cut

Has someone called asking for your credit card information to pay a past-due utility bill? Most likely, you are being scammed.

Idaho County residents are advised to be aware of this scam following attempts reported this month by two commercial accounts of Idaho County Light and Power Cooperative (ICLP), according to general manager Jake Eimers.

“They were told they are in danger of being cut off if they don’t pay,” Eimers said, and the scammer attempts to have the potential victim provide credit card information.

Eimers said in one instance the caller identified herself as being with Idaho Power and threatened the victim, a restaurant owner, with cutting off service that day if payment wasn’t sent. However, the victim in this case had recently received her ICLP bill that didn’t show any past due, so she knew the call was bogus. Eimers speculated scammers are calling restaurants during the busy lunch hour rush, “hoping to scare them into divulging information when they are too busy to think about it.”

Eimers called two 208-area-code numbers left by the callers, and on each was responded to by a “foreign sounding” man and a woman who hung up on Eimers when he inquired where they were calling from and also when he threatened to prosecute if they didn’t stop calling.

“We’re aware of this scam,” said Debbie Simock, spokesperson for Avista Utilities. “Variations of this have happened nationwide, and in our service territory particularly in Pullman-Moscow and Spokane.”

Primarily, commercial and small businesses have been targeted, and some residential customers. Scammers represent themselves as belonging to a utility that they assume covers the community or region they are targeting, and in some instances they have directed the victim to obtain and put money into a Green Dot prepaid card to make the payment.

Could you be past due on a payment? In that case, both ICLP and Avista state customers are contacted first by a mailed notice and, if necessary, with a phone call; Avista sends an automated call, and ICLP makes a live call to its customers.

“But it’s not from some unknown person; it’s somebody here who our customers are familiar with and deal with regularly,” Eimers said. The staffer will work with the customer on making payment arrangements; credit cards are a payment option but ICLP staff does not press their use as is being done in this fraud attempt.

Simock said Avista does not pressure customers for payment or be immediately disconnected; they have a process of notification and working with customers who need payment plan options.

“If a customer receives a call and it’s high pressure to have them send payment or they’re going to be disconnected, terminate the call,” Simock said, “report it to law enforcement, and report it to us so we’re aware also.”

If customers have callback numbers of the scammer, those can be investigated and, if determined to be used in fraudulent activity, disconnected by the phone company.

Regarding this scam, the Idaho County Sheriff’s Office has received only one possibly related report recently, Dec. 30: a Grangeville resident was contacted by a caller claiming to be with “IPL” seeking financial information to pay an outstanding balance on a bill.

Simock added sometimes caller ID systems can be fooled to show the caller origin is from a legitimate utility. But the utility never asks for any personal information or account numbers, so if it sounds suspicious, hang up and call Avista from the number provided on the bill or at 800-227-9187.

“Be aware that these calls are being made, and that they should not give their credit card information over the phone to someone they don’t know,” Eimers advised. If someone questions whether this is legitimate, hang up and call the utility – not with the number the caller provides but from the phone book: (877) 212-0424 or 983-1610.

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