Scammers take new approach to classic utility scam amid COVID-19

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WHSV) — You hopefully already know by this point that scammers have been taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic for one of their classic calls: threatening to turn your utilities off.

That scam, which always preys on people's fears, is especially malicious as millions of Americans deal with job losses because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

But in Virginia and West Virginia, utilities have been ordered to suspend all service terminations throughout the crisis, so a shutoff is not legally possible at the moment.

So scammers have adapted.

According to Dominion Energy, they've now gotten multiple reports of people claiming to represent Dominion and offering a discount on your electric bill.

While no shutoffs are happening and many utilities have also suspended late fees too (though it's critical to remember all bills are due at the end of the shutoff ban), they're also not offering discounts.

Dominion Energy says the scammers are using 'phone number spoofing' to make it look like the number they're calling from is actually Dominion's customer service number.

But they say they'll never call and threaten immediate disconnection or demand personal information or immediate payment over the phone.

The new scam, after offering an electric bill discount, asks you for your personal information – allegedly so they can apply the discount properly.

If you ever feel like a call from an official company is off, hang up, dial the official number, and verify your information.

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 www.wvago.gov.

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 Price Gouging Complaint Form. More info is here.

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

To report fraud directly to the FBI, click here.

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 these organizations 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 Price Gouging Complaint Form. More info is here.

• 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 What the U.S. Government is Doing. 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 here.

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.