Phone scammers claim payment is needed to try to steal personal information; groups say consumers should be alert and follow basic tips to keep information protected
The New York State Division of Consumer Protection (DCP) and the Department of Public Service (DPS) are alerting consumers of a phone scam in which scammers, pretending to be from a utility company, call individuals and threaten to suspend electricity services unless they receive a payment immediately. Payment has been requested by means of untraceable services such as gift cards, including Green Dot cards and money transfer apps, including Cash App.
Pursuant to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s March 13 directive, DPS worked with the state’s utility companies to ensure no New Yorkers would have their utilities cutoff for nonpayment during the “PAUSE.” Similar action was taken during Super Storm Sandy, the 2014 polar vortex, and the 2008 financial crisis.
“Scammers are unscrupulous and will stop at nothing to get their hands on New Yorkers’ hard-earned money. These latest scams are targeting vulnerable New Yorkers by scaring them with empty threats to shut off their utilities,” New York State Secretary of State Rossana Rosado said. “New Yorkers should be aware of these scammers and follow basic safety tips to avoid falling victim.”
DPS CEO John B. Rhodes said, “It is flat-out wrong that scammers try to take advantage of consumers, especially during these uncertain times. Gov. Cuomo has taken strong action to protect consumers, including a moratorium on shut-offs, and New Yorkers should call their utility to ensure their rights.”
In addition, calls have also been reported to be coming from scammers purporting to be from New York electric and gas utilities. The callers ask for consumer information, including utility account numbers, social security numbers, and dates of birth, and request payment for alleged past-due bills. Scammers will demand payment, make threats to turn off power, and try to rush customers into making an immediate payment. Similar to a Social Security scam detailed in June of 2019, in these cases the caller “spoofs” official phone numbers of state agencies or utility companies call individuals seeking information that could be used to steal identities. Spoofing is when a caller deliberately falsifies the information transmitted to a caller ID display to disguise their identity, according to the Federal Communications Commission. In actuality, the call could be coming from anywhere in the world.
To avoid falling victim to these scams, the state said consumers should follow the tips below:
√ Consumers should never give out personal information such as account numbers, Social Security numbers, mother's maiden names, passwords or other identifying information in response to unexpected calls or if they are at all suspicious. Consumers should not respond to any questions, especially those that can be answered with "Yes" or "No." Consumers should exercise caution if they are being pressured for information immediately.
√ Government agencies and utility companies do not ask for payments via gift cards or cash transfer apps. Gift cards allow scammers to get money without a trace. Real utility companies issue several disconnection warnings before shutting off utilities and they never demand money over the phone or specify a method of payment.
√ Use call-blocking tools from your phone provider and check into apps that block calls. The FCC allows phone companies to block robocalls by default based on reasonable analytics (see fcc.gov/robocalls).
√ Do not rely on the number that comes up on your phone. Callers can “spoof” the number to look like a government agency or local utility company. If someone has contacted an individual and they are suspicious, they should hang up and go directly to the official website for the agency or utility company or call the number on their utility bill to confirm whether there is a problem with their account.
√ If a consumer receives this or any other scam calls, they are encouraged to file a complaint with the DCP.
The New York State Division of Consumer Protection investigates “Do Not Call” violations and provides voluntary mediation between a consumer and a business when a consumer has been unsuccessful at reaching a resolution on their own. The consumer assistance helpline (1-800-697-1220) is available from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays, excluding state holidays. Consumer complaints can be filed at any time at www.dos.ny.gov/consumerprotection. The DCP can also be reached via Twitter at @NYSConsumer or Facebook at www.facebook.com/nysconsumer.