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The Downside of Tech and Utilities

Todd Carney's picture
Writer Freelance

Todd Carney is a graduate of Harvard Law School. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Public Communications. He writes on many different aspects of energy, in particular how it...

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  • Jun 20, 2022
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Digital platforms have made management of utilities far easier. People do not have to worry about their check making it to the utilities company on time, since they can just pay online and have the bill resolved within a few minutes. People can even schedule payments so they do not have to even think about utilities. If someone needs to set up utilities at their residence, they can often submit a request online and it will be taken care of pretty seamlessly.

Despite all of these vast improvements made by digital platforms for utilities, there can still be some drawbacks. Perhaps the biggest issue is that the increased use of tech has made it far easier to scam people using utilities. By this point most people have heard about phone scams to one degree or another. Speaking broadly, how phone scams work is that people get a call from someone claiming that the person owes money and that it is urgent. The victim pays the money and is either just scammed out of the money they paid or the scammer also gets access to the victim’s bank account and withdraws even more money. Often the scammer is someone claiming to be from the government, such as a tax collector or an officer requesting bail money for the victim’s family member.

Outside of government officials, another significant group that scammers impersonate are utilities companies. Typically a victim gets a call from someone claiming to be a utility provider and they say the victim owes them money. Often the scammer claims that the utility bill needs to be paid right away or their utility will be shut off. Given how disruptive the loss of gas, water, electricity, or another utility, could be in general, but particularly in extreme temperatures, some people are inclined to pay the bill promptly, without doing research or thinking through how the call could be a scam. Many people who are behind on bills often get legitimate communications from a utility company that say they owe money, so it is easy to see how people could get fooled.

The ramifications of these scams can vary, but all can be grave. In cases where someone is just losing say 50 dollars, if the person is short on cash, then that losing that money could cause serious problems. In other situations, these scams can wipe out someone’s lifesavings. Additionally, the more these scams are successful, the more that they will occur. These scams have occurred nationally and locally, and various government agencies are trying to figure out the best way to stop them.

Examples of Scams

In San Diego, there is a scam where people pretend to be from San Diego Gas & Electric and claim that the customers must pay or their electricity will be shutdown. The victims are instructed to typically pay in cryptocurrency. This scam has targeted the elderly, small business owners, and people with limited English comprehension. One business owner lost $25,000 from this scam. San Diego Gas & Electric has announced that they do not make such calls and have instructed to never provide login credentials or other sensitive information over the phone.

In Seattle, a similar scam has occurred through the local utility organizations City Light and Seattle Public Utilities. The latter is actually a government utilities arm. Seattle Public Utilities has put information warning people of these scams, and has even provided a number for Seattle residents to call to report it, so the city can catch these scammers.

In Clearwater, which is a city in Florida, there has been a scam through people impersonating Clearwater Public Utilities. The city government of Clearwater has partnered with the state government to establish a number and site to reach out to the Attorney General’s office.

Interestingly in Charlotte, North Carolina, Duke Energy is spearheading an initiative to fight scammers. They have released information discussing the severity of these scams, and how Covid-19 has made these scams more prevalent. Duke Energy is partnering with other utilities companies.

The US is not alone with dealing with these scams, Canada has faced similar ones. These scam organizations have the ability to relentlessly target individuals and they only have to get it right once to successfully scam someone. Governments and companies at all levels will need to do more to stop these scams.

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