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Consumer advocates: beware of utility scammers

November 16, 2018

A consumer protection organization is warning Wisconsin residents to be on guard against scammers posing as utility company bill collectors.

Late last month Madison Gas & Electric received reports from several dozen business customers who got calls from someone purporting to be from the utility and demanding immediate payment.

Alliant Energy spokeswoman Annemarie Newman said the utility has logged nearly 550 complaints since mid-May, nearly twice the number during the same period last year.

Milwaukee-based WE Energies reported more than 600 scam attempts in one month this fall, and a customer in Waukesha County was bilked out of $1,300 from scammers who threatened to shut off his power, according to WDJT.

WE Energies spokeswoman Amy Jahns said of those hundreds of customers only about half a dozen actually lost money.

“People are noticing the warning signs,” she said.

In August the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection put out an alert after receiving a flurry of complaints.

“It was wild there with utility calls,” said department spokesman Jared Albrecht.

In October the department fielded about three dozen complaints from customers of WE Energies and Wisconsin Public Service.

Scammers have used email to contact unwitting consumers, and impostors have shown up at people’s doors posing as utility workers. The targets can be residential customers but also small businesses.

But the most prevalent scam in Wisconsin comes in the form of a call -- which appears to come from a legitimate utility company -- in which customers are threatened with having their power shut off immediately unless they cough up money through a pre-paid debit card, according to the Citizens Utility Board.

MGE spokesman Steve Schultz said the utility typically sees a spike in calls every few months before scammers move on to another utility.

While people are starting to catch on, Schultz said, “It must still work enough that (the scammers) keep doing it.”

The Citizens Utility Board, which represents residential and small business ratepayers, this week released a “Scams Guide” as part of a coordinated nationwide effort to highlight the problem and arm consumers with tools to fight the perpetrators.

Utilities always contact customers by mail when accounts are past due. While they may call customers at risk of shut-off, they do not demand immediate payment by phone, according to the state’s Consumer Protection Bureau.

“We would never ever call and ask for immediate payment,” Schultz said.

And if a call comes this time of year, it’s almost certainly a scam, since Wisconsin law prohibits utilities from shutting off power between Nov. 1 and April 15.

Consumer advocates say to hang up on aggressive callers demanding money and to contact the utility directly to check account balances.

The Citizens Utility Board also urges customers to report scams to the police or the state Consumer Protection office at 800-422-7128.

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