You may get a call about a late phone, gas or electric bill. Should you pay right away?

Chances are good that this call is a scam. According to Hiya, a company that makes caller blocking software, bogus utility callers claim to be calling from ConEd, Duke Energy, Georgia Power and Consumers Energy. Scammers even claim to be calling from General Electric, which isn’t even a utility company.

Here’s how the scam works: The caller will threaten to cut off power or other services and offer an “energy assistance” or payment plan. Once they get your payment information, they use that information to fleece you.

“Scammers are constantly looking for new ways to defraud consumers and we’ve seen triple digit growth in utility company scams in the past year,” said Jan Volzke, VP Reputation Data at Hiya.

“While many consumers now know to be wary of calls claiming to be from the IRS or offering a free cruise that seems too good to be true, the latest threat comes disguised in the form of the utility companies that we trust to provide our basic services, like gas and electricity.”

What You Can Do

Like most scams, the more urgent the message, the more you should avoid it, although most calls start out “we’re calling about your utility bill…”

And like the IRS, utilities rarely call customers. In most cases, it’s hard to get through to a human being when calling the companies. Here are some safeguards from the Better Business Bureau:

Prepaid debit cards are a red flag: If a caller specifically asks you to pay by prepaid debit card or wire transfer, this is a huge warning sign. Your utility company will accept a check or credit card and will usually direct you to one of their payment locations.

Don’t cave to pressure: If you feel pressured for immediate payment or personal information, hang up the phone and call the customer service number on your utility bill. This will ensure you are speaking to a real representative.

Don’t let people into your home: Remember that electrical meters are the property of the utility company and would be the responsibility of the utility to replace or repair.

Never allow anyone into your home to check electrical wiring, natural gas pipes or appliances unless you have scheduled an appointment or reported a problem.

Also, don’t get lured outside to view broken meters or point out property lines. Always ask utility employees for proper identification.

John F. Wasik is the author of  “Lightning Strikes,” “The Debt-Free Degree,” “Keynes’s Way to Wealth“and 13 other books on innovation, money and life. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.  

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