Texas power companies warn of scam

HOUSTON — Texas power companies are warning consumers about con artists who pose as electricity providers and threaten to cut customers’ power unless they give up financial information to pay fictitious bills.

The scam has existed for several years, but reports often increase in the summer when high temperatures make the threat of losing electricity — and air conditioning — even more intimidating, power company officials say.

“Unfortunately, it’s not terribly new, but it’s become even more sophisticated in the ways criminals are going about conducting the scam,” said Lauren Little, a spokeswoman for TXU, the state’s largest retail electric provider. “It’s something TXU Energy and other retailers have seen over the last year or two start to grow.”

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There are various versions of the scam, but generally, perpetrators call phone numbers, claim to be from an electric company, and say the victims have unpaid bill balances and will lose their electric service unless bills are paid immediately, said John Fainter, president and CEO of the Association of Electric Companies of Texas.

The callers may try to coerce consumers to provide credit card numbers, bank account information or Social Security numbers in order to process the non-existent bill.

Fainter and others who work in the power sector said the scam tends to target the elderly and lower-income people who may be worried about their bills, or people who don’t speak English well.

Sophisticated scammers can make the names of electric companies show up on caller ID to make the inquiries seem legitimate. Other versions  target people through email.

Reliant, the second-largest residential electricity provider in Texas, gets dozens of reports about such scams every year, said spokeswoman Pat Hammond.

Besides residences, she said, the scam often targets small business owners — and in particular restaurateurs — who are especially fearful of the effect a sudden disconnection of electricity could mean for business.

The company tracks complaints to its customer service representatives about the scam.

“I just receive a call from my customer … advising that they received a disconnection payment request call at all three of their restaurants,” reads one transcript from just last month. “This is the third or fourth time she received this call within the past eight months.”

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In some versions of the scam, customers are told to make immediate payment via a money order, prepaid debit card or PayPal. Requests like that should set off red flags, Hammond said.

Fainter said the best way to defend against such scams is never to provide financial information to people who call unsolicited.

Customers who fear they might really be behind on their bills should look up their electricity provider’s phone number online or on their bill and call to check whether they have an unpaid balance.

Customers also should also be skeptical if they’re threatened with a disconnection when they haven’t received previous warnings, Fainter said, and should be suspicious of any caller who claims to be with an electricity company that doesn’t usually send a bill.

“It’s an extremely sensitive issue to us,” Hammond said. “It’s worrisome to think our customers may be victims of this. We’d encourage our customers: don’t make any payments until you call us if you’re unsure.”

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