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Scammers posing as utility companies to threaten shutoffs amid coronavirus

(WABI)
Published: Apr. 3, 2020 at 11:26 AM EDT
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Even though most public utilities have suspended service terminations during the COVID-19 pandemic, and many states, like Virginia, have ordered all utilities to do so, that isn't stopping impostors from threatening to turn your utilities off.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey issued a warning to consumers on Friday that scammers are posing as utility companies, like Dominion Energy or First Energy, and calling people to tell them that their service will be shut off unless they pay up.

But, with millions of Americans unemployed or furloughed due to the effects of the coronavirus, utilities across the country are not shutting off people's service for nonpayment right now. Many, like the Shenandoah Valley Electric Co-op, have even suspended late fees temporarily.

Nonetheless, Morrisey says the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division received numerous reports just this week of scammers using the names of recognizable utilities and threatening to turn off people's utilities to steal people's money or personal information.

One person lost $2,500 this week.

“I applaud the Public Service Commission and every utility that agrees to suspend shutoff notifications during this perilous time,” Attorney General Morrisey said. “The coronavirus continues to impact every aspect of life, and acts of generosity such as this provide some peace of mind to consumers across West Virginia. Anyone receiving a shutoff notice should contact their provider to ensure it is not a scam.”

Utility scams typically demand immediate payment and threaten service disconnection if you fail to cooperate or question the caller’s legitimacy.

Such calls typically come from an impostor who claims to represent a familiar utility. This could be especially true during the coronavirus pandemic.

Consumers should be wary of any caller who gives inadequate notice of an impending disconnect or interruption in service and/or demands prepaid debit cards, such as Green Dot cards, as a form of payment.

In all instances, consumers should be cautious with any unsolicited email, phone call or other forms of communication. They should never share personally identifiable, financial and otherwise sensitive data or agree to send cash, wire money or provide numbers associated with a credit/debit card, gift card or bank account without verifying the legitimacy of the recipient.

What you can do

In West Virginia, the Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Hotline – 1-800-368-8808 – remains open to anyone wishing to report scams, price gouging or other manners by which bad actors may try to take advantage of consumers during the pandemic. Written complaints can also be filed at

.

In Virginia, you can report scams or price gouging to Attorney General Herring’s Consumer Protection Section by calling (800) 552-9963, emailing consumer@oag.state.va.us, or going through the online

. More info is

.

If you believe you have been the victim of fraud, or need more information about COVID-19, click

.

To report fraud directly to the FBI, click

.

Other coronavirus scams to look out for:

Some examples of coronavirus and COVID-19 scams, provided by the new task force, the Better Business Bureau, and by the FTC, include:

• Government relief check scams: Scammers send you a message make a social media post claiming you qualify for a COVID-19 government grant and just need to click a link to fill out the "necessary" personal information. In the process, your identifying information is stolen.

What to do:

No matter what the message, don’t click! In addition to taking your money, these sites can also download malware to your device and use your information for identity theft.

• Treatment scams: Scammers are offering to sell fake cures, vaccines, and advice on unproven treatments for COVID-19.

• Supply scams: Scammers are creating fake shops, websites, social media accounts, and email addresses claiming to sell medical supplies currently in high demand, such as surgical masks. When consumers attempt to purchase supplies through these channels, fraudsters pocket the money and never provide the promised supplies.

What to do:

Check out the seller by searching online for the person or company’s name, phone number and email address, plus words like “review,” “complaint” or “scam.” If everything checks out, pay by credit card and keep a record of your transaction. If you’re concerned about the pricing of products in your area, contact your state consumer protection officials.

• Provider scams: Scammers are also contacting people by phone and email, pretending to be doctors and hospitals that have treated a friend or relative for COVID-19, and demanding payment for that treatment.

• Charity scams: Scammers are soliciting donations for individuals, groups, and areas affected by COVID-19. Some scammers use names that sound a lot like the names of real charities. This is one reason it pays to do some research before giving. Money lost to bogus charities means less donations to help those in need.

What to do:

You can use

to help research legitimate charities before giving.

• Phishing scams: Scammers posing as national and global health authorities, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are sending phishing emails designed to trick recipients into downloading malware or providing personal identifying and financial information. If you click on a link, they can install ransomware or other programs that can lock you out of your data. Scammers often use familiar company names or pretend to be someone you know.

What to do:

Protect your computer by keeping your software up to date and by using security software, your cell phone by setting software to update automatically, your accounts by using multi-factor authentication, and your data by backing it up.

• App scams: Scammers are also creating and manipulating mobile apps designed to track the spread of COVID-19 to insert malware that will compromise users’ devices and personal information.

• Robocall scams: Scammers are using illegal robocalls to pitch everything from scam Coronavirus treatments to work-at-home schemes.

What to do:

Hang up. Don’t press any numbers. The recording might say that pressing a number will let you speak to a live operator or remove you from their call list, but it might lead to more robocalls, instead.

• Investment scams: Scammers are offering online promotions on various platforms, including social media, claiming that the products or services of publicly traded companies can prevent, detect, or cure COVID-19, and that the stock of these companies will dramatically increase in value as a result. These promotions are often styled as "research reports," make predictions of a specific "target price," and relate to microcap stocks, or low-priced stocks issued by the smallest of companies with limited publicly available information.

• Price Gouging scams: Individuals and businesses may sell essential goods, like hand sanitizer, for significantly higher prices than in a non-emergency setting. It is legally considered price gouging when the price of one of these products increases more than 20 percent its price one week prior to an emergency declaration from the Commonwealth of Virginia.

What to do:

Anti-price gouging statutes are in effect because of statewide states of emergency. If you see price gouging, you should report it to Attorney General Herring’s Consumer Protection Section. You can do that by calling (800) 552-9963, emailing consumer@oag.state.va.us, or going through the online

. More info is

.

• Misinformation and rumors: Scammers, and sometimes well-meaning people, share information that hasn’t been verified.

What to do:

Before you pass on any messages, and certainly before you pay someone or share your personal information, do some fact checking by contacting trusted sources. For information related to the Coronavirus, visit

. There you’ll find links to federal, state and local government agencies.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also has a breakdown of even more coronavirus-related scams

.

And remember: government agencies do not communicate through social media avenues like Facebook. So, be wary of unsolicited messages. Also, do not pay any money for a "free" government grant.