Companies warn of bill scam

Published 9:40 pm Monday, July 23, 2012

Local companies and agencies are warning area residents about a scam going around the country that convinces people that President Barack Obama is paying their utility bills for them.

“Scams are always troubling, especially in these difficult economic times when people are taking advantage of those who may already be struggling to pay their bills,” said Gianna Clark, vice president of customer service operations for Dominion Virginia Power. “We hope this warning will be heeded and shared so that other customers can avoid traps like this.”

The scam works by telling people there is a “special federal government assistance program,” according to a news release from the Virginia Association of Area Agencies on Aging. Criminals are persuading victims that the program, sometimes described as a bailout authorized by Obama’s administration, is available to pay their utility bills, according to the release.

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Victims are contacted by phone, text message, social media and in person, according to a news release from Dominion. They are given a bank account and routing numbers to use when paying their bills online, but only after they have surrendered their Social Security numbers and personal information.

Furthering the success of the scam, the payments are sometimes processed and credited to victims’ accounts before the utility company realizes the banking information is false, at which time the payment is rejected. Victims often tell family and friends before realizing they’ve been scammed.

A Suffolk city spokeswoman and a representative of the United Way said they had not heard of anyone in Suffolk falling victim to the scam.

According to the Better Business Bureau, there is no federal program to pay household bills. Providing personal information to a scammer likely will lead to identity theft and credit issues.

Dominion has had at least 60 customers fall victim to the scam, according to a news release from the company. It has waived for the victims the return fee it usually charges.

Dominion encourages anyone contacted about a government program proposing to pay utility bills to contact law enforcement officials. Dominion also cautions customers to ask to see an official company ID from anyone who comes to their residence and claims to be from the company.

The Better Business Bureau offers these tips to avoid falling for a scam:

  • Beware of giving personal information over the phone. Never provide your Social Security number, credit card number or banking information to anyone requesting it over the phone or at your home unless you initiated the contact and feel confident about the person with whom you are speaking.
  • Use your own personal information. Never pay your bills with information that is not your own.
  • Do your research. If you receive a call claiming to be from your utility company and feel pressured for immediate payment or personal information, hang up the phone and call the customer service number on your utility bill.
  • Beware of the door-to-door sales approach. Never allow anyone into your home to check electrical wiring, natural gas pipes or appliances unless you have scheduled an appointment or have reported a utility problem. Also, ask utility employees for proper identification.
  • Be proactive. If you have already provided information to someone claiming to offer this service, contact your bank immediately. Also contact the three national credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — and have a notation made on your account so it doesn’t impact your credit rating.
  • Inform others. Share this information with friends and family so they do not become victims. Elderly victims are common in this type of scam, but anyone who pays a utility bill is a potential target.