Column: Scam utility calls are the latest pandemic ploy to target your cash

Utilities nationwide are warning customers to ignore calls threatening a service shutdown if you don't pay some cash.
Utilities nationwide are warning customers to ignore calls threatening a service shutdown if you don’t pay some cash.
(John Antczak / Associated Press)

It would be nice, considering everything else going on, if I didn’t have to issue periodic reminders to watch out for scammers.

Unfortunately, the pandemic stay-at-home orders make us easy pickings for unscrupulous sorts who equate people’s hardship with financial opportunity — which is why officials say scam calls are soaring.

The Federal Trade Commission says it has received well over 100,000 complaints related to coronavirus scams, including “miracle cures,” bogus charities and other attempts to separate people from their money. Reported losses have reached nearly $140 million.


One of the most insidious rackets lately is calls from people purporting to work for the local utility. If you don’t come across with some cash, they say, your power or water will be cut off.

The FTC says it has received about 4,700 complaints of utilities scams over the last year, with roughly $3.5 million reported lost.

Utilities nationwide and throughout California have warned customers to be on the alert for such calls and to not fall for the threats of service shutdowns.

“These kinds of scams have been around since before the COVID crisis,” said Ron Gales, a spokesman for Southern California Edison. “But customers are at home now. It’s not surprising that we’re seeing more of it.”

Anne Supple says she came alarmingly close the other day to getting duped by this scheme.

“You hear your electricity is being shut off, that’s going to scare you,” the Long Beach resident told me. “And this call sounds so real.”

The danger is especially pronounced for seniors.

Supple, 72, said that “seniors are more alone right now than they were before.” Many will be “terrified of losing their electricity.”

Edison’s Gales said this jibes with what the utility is observing.

“We’re seeing these scams primarily targeting seniors and small-business owners who speak English as a second language,” he said.

Edison received nearly 8,600 reports of scam calls to customers through August, Gales said, resulting in losses of almost $214,000.

Like many of us, Supple said she and her husband have stopped answering calls from unknown sources.

But she picked up the phone as a recent caller left a message saying he was with Edison and warning that her electricity was about to be cut off because of unpaid bills.

“Most of these types of calls, the person sounds like a robot,” Supple said. “This guy sounded real. He sounded like a gentleman.”

The caller apologized for Edison preparing to take such drastic action, but he said two notices had been sent out about unpaid bills.

“I told him we never received them,” Supple recalled. “He responded with great surprise.”

While they were speaking, Supple’s husband, Charles, 76, checked the couple’s bank account to verify that their power bill had been paid. It had.

The caller, she said, immediately said this looked like “a situation where our payment was applied to someone else’s bill.”

Supple said she once had an experience where someone else’s mortgage payment came from her checking account, so it was reasonable to her that something similar had happened with Edison.

The caller steadily built on his seeming legitimacy. He then said he needed to place Supple on hold to look more closely at her file.

“It all sounded so legit!” she said.

When the caller came back on the line, he provided Supple with a case number and said the service cutoff would proceed unless the couple made an “express payment.”

That was the red flag Supple was watching for.

“I turned to my husband and said, ‘I think this is a scam,’” she told me. “Then I got back on the phone and told the guy this sounded like a scam.”

The caller, Supple said, “hung up very quickly.”

She was right to be on the alert for any rapid payment. Most real businesses will not try to rush a transaction. They’ll provide instructions for a timely remittance on your terms.

Edison’s Gales said the utility will never seek a payment by phone or ask for a credit card number.

“We also won’t cut you off immediately, especially during the COVID crisis,” he said.

In fact, Edison says no customer will lose service due to lack of payment until next April at the soonest. After that time, Gales said, the utility will work out a payment plan for any unpaid bills.

Similarly, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power says it won’t disconnect any customers in arrears before the end of the year. After that, it will work out a payment schedule.

“We never, ever will call you and ask for money,” said Sharon Grove, the DWP’s director of customer experience.

If you receive a questionable utility call, the FTC advises telling the caller you’ll contact the company yourself using the number on your bill.

“Utility companies don’t demand banking information by email or phone,” the agency says. “And they won’t force you to pay by phone as your only option.”

Moreover, “if the caller demands payment by gift card, cash reload card, wiring money or cryptocurrency, it is a scam,” the FTC says.

I’ll go that one better. There is no legitimate business transaction that involves untraceable, nonrefundable gift cards — ever. As soon as anyone insists on a payment via gift cards, walk away.

In Supple’s case, I was struck by the sophistication of the ploy right up to the express-payment demand.

The caller displayed no hesitancy about the purported situation and had a ready answer for anything his would-be victims countered with.

The truly genius move was when he placed Supple on hold for a few minutes and then came back with a case number. That’s the sort of realistic wrinkle that can lower the defenses of many consumers.

Supple told me she hopes other people, and especially seniors, are now watchful for this scam and won’t fall for its scary prospect of losing power during a pandemic.

A day after that phony Edison call, Supple said, the phone rang again.

“It was a different guy,” she said. “But the same exact call.”

Not so much geniuses after all.