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Utility companies are teaming up to fight imposters that target homes

Utility companies are teaming up to fight imposters that target homes

When in doubt:

  • Utility companies rarely send employees to customers’ homes without calling first.
  • Look for employees’ ID badges, which should be clearly displayed on their uniforms.
  • Check for company logos on uniforms and vehicles.
  • Call the utility company to verify the individual’s identity.
  • If the situation seems suspicious, call 911.

 

By Katherine Schaeffer
Trib Total Media

Monday, June 22, 2015, 10:57 p.m.
Updated 18 hours ago

 

When Wally Root’s 88-year-old mother opened the door for a man claiming to be a water company employee, she thought he would check for a leaky pipe, not case her home for valuables.

The man, who carried a clipboard and flashed an identification card, coaxed Root’s mother into her Beechview home’s basement while his accomplices distracted Root’s 86-year-old stepfather upstairs, Root said.

By the time they realized something was amiss, the thieves had ransacked the bedroom, snatching about $2,000 in cash and jewelry, including her engagement ring from the 1940s and other heirlooms, Root said. No arrests have been made.

“She’s still scared,” Root said, noting his mother has poor eyesight. “I think she’ll be scared for the rest of her life.”

Scam artists have preyed on utility customers across Pennsylvania, gaining entry to homes disguised as utility workers. This summer, utility companies are ramping up efforts to rein in what seems to be a growing trend.

The Keystone Alliance to Stop Utility Imposters, a collaboration among Pennsylvania utility companies, regulators and local law enforcement, will roll out an ad campaign to educate consumers about how to avoid utility imposter scams. The campaign will raise customer awareness with print, television and radio advertisements. Utilities have committed to including bill inserts and ads on their websites.

Nationally, fraud complaints increased from 4 percent of consumer complaints in 2012 to 10.7 percent in 2014, according to a report from the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Sentinel Network, which receives about 2 million complaints a year.

Utility scammers tend to target senior citizens, and Pittsburgh’s consumer base is the second-oldest in the country, said Warren King, Pennsylvania Better Business Bureau president. Imposters take advantage of brand recognition, using a reputable company’s name to gain trust, he said.

There are different types of utility scams: Thieves who pose as utility workers to gain entry to individuals’ homes, and scammers calling or emailing customers threatening to shut off water or power if they don’t pay bogus fees, King said.

“Most people don’t recognize they’ve been scammed,” King said.

Legitimate utility employees rarely show up to customers’ homes unannounced, and their clothing and vehicles are clearly marked with company logos, said Scott Waitlevertch, manager of government relations for Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania.

Waitlevertch said he encourages customers to call the utility or the police if an individual seems suspicious.

“A legitimate employee will wait and work with the officer,” he said.

Although imposter-targeted educational campaigns will help vulnerable utility customers, they do little to help scam victims like Root’s mother, he said.

“It’s too late for my mom,” he said.

Katherine Schaeffer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7832 or kschaeffer@tribweb.com.

 

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