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Willie Phillips's picture
Chairman Public Service Commission of the District of Columbia

Willie L. Phillips was appointed to the Public Service Commission of the District of Columbia (PSC) in 2014 and reappointed to serve as Chairman in 2018. Chairman Phillips is an experienced...

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What’s the best defense against utility scams? An informed consumer.

image credit: Public Service Commission of the District of Columbia

The one and only point of utility scams is to separate consumers from their money. Oftentimes you’ll hear that it’s older adults who are the victims of such scams, but it can happen to anyone — young, old, rich, poor, college-educated, or not — it doesn't matter. We’ve been working hard at the Public Service Commission of the District of Columbia to educate consumers about disconnection threats, “over payment” notifications and other common scams.

However, combating these threats has become a game of “whack-a-mole.” When one scam begins to fail, another comes along to take its place. The COVID-19 pandemic has unfortunately only increased the amount and frequency of these scams.

To help create an informed, vigilant consumer base, we’ve launched Fight Utility Scams, a one-stop shop microsite for consumers that provides tips, videos and community resources to help them respond to scams, such as individuals impersonating utility representatives over the phone, online or in person. We want utility consumers to feel empowered by taking control of the conversation. Our website raises awareness of the issue and educates customers about the warning signs of a utility scam.

While the DCPSC is leading this campaign, we’re not alone in tackling this issue. Local utility companies receive similar complaints from consumers, and we’ve joined forces to share a unified message. For example, I recently co-hosted a townhall webinar with Pepco and AARP DC to share details about common scams and, most importantly, answer consumer questions directly. We know that the average victim of a utility scam suffers about $500 in damages — a significant amount of money for most people. This unnecessary financial hardship, especially during a global pandemic, is something I personally want to eliminate.

We’ll continue to highlight the most common scams and tactics scammers are using on Fight Utility Scams and update the site as new scams appear. I look forward to hearing from other utility and regulatory professionals on the best ways to protect consumers, their families and our community.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 21, 2020

We know that the average victim of a utility scam suffers about $500 in damages — a significant amount of money for most people. 

That's high! Glad to see these organizations coming together to fight these bad actors. 

Willie-- I'm curious if you find any issues in reaching the customers who need to hear this sometimes? I would imagine there are significant portions of customers who might not be technically inclined and are thus vulnerable to scams, but they may know they aren't technically inclined which makes them more likely to listen to these warnings. But are there customer groups who think they already know what they need to know, and thus they ignore these warnings and in fact become more vulnerable? Or is vulnerability more universal across customer types? 

Willie Phillips's picture
Willie Phillips on May 22, 2020

Great questions, Matt. Getting the word out can be a challenge.  And scammers are just looking for money and/or personal information.  We’ve seen just about every type of person fall victim and that’s a big reason for this campaign. The more consumers are aware that scams are on the rise, the better off we will be in thwarting those attacks. For those consumers who successfully avoid a scam, we’re asking for their help to inform their family, neighbors, and community groups about those scams and how to avoid them. More than likely everyone knows someone who’s been contacted by a scammer.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 22, 2020

The more consumers are aware that scams are on the rise, the better off we will be in thwarting those attacks. 

This is a great point-- you may know what best practices are to avoid a scam, but if it's not at the forefront of your mind it's easy to forget. Kind of reminds of the whole adage behind a giant brand like Coca Cola advertising a lot on TV-- people already know about Coke, so you're not informing them about something they already know, but rather you're making sure that the idea of Coke (or avoiding utility scams) is still in mind

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