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PG&E, other utilities bond to fight scams

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has recorded a 65% increase in attempted confidence schemes in recent months by people posing as employees of the utility.

“Every day across the country our customers along with phone, water and other essential services are targeted by scammers impersonating utility staff, typically online, in-person and by phone,” said Megan McFarland, a PG&E communications representative. “To promote awareness of this growing menace, PG&E wants customers take steps to protect themselves from falling victim.”

Nov. 14 to 20 was Utility Scam Awareness Week. PG&E has joined other essential service providers in Utilities United Against Scams, which aims to help customers recognize con schemes directed against vulnerable targets: seniors, the poor, and small businesses.

Confidence cheats are continually changing tactics, officials said.

“All of us have to continue to evolve our safeguards and approaches to keeping our customers safe,” said Chris Zenner, PG&E vice president of residential services. “If an email, a visit to your home, or phone call doesn’t feel right, don’t fall for it.”

Restrictions and reduced schedules throughout pandemic have not slowed down confidence artists, McFarland said. Scammers have increased their activity.

“They are constantly contacting utility customers and asking for immediate payment to avoid service disconnection,” she said. “As a reminder, PG&E will never send a single notification to a customer within one hour of a service interruption. And we will never ask customers to make payments with a pre-paid debit card, gift card, any form of cryptocurrency, or third-party digital payment mobile applications.”

Echoing that precaution is Jared Lawrence, Duke Energy metering services vice president and a founder of Utilities United Against Scams.

“They have intensified their criminal activity with high pressure tactics and increasing use of technology,” Lawrence said. “For that reason, utilities continue to unite to combat scammers by spreading awareness and are working with telecom partners to remove access to phone lines and encouraging policy makers to adopt stronger public protections.”


A typical scam: Posing as a utility employee, a caller threatens to disconnect service and demands immediate payment for what they falsely claim is a past due bill.

They instruct the customer to buy a prepaid card and call them back supposedly to make a bill payment. When the customer phones back, the caller asks for the customer’s prepaid card number, which grants the scammers access to the card’s funds.

Derek Blevins, a retired musician in Kensington, was contacted a month ago by someone he thought was a PG&E customer service rep who informed him his electricity would be cut off later in the day because of non-payment of several months that accrued to over $400.

Blevins quickly checked his bank account online and could not find fault with bill payments. But the PG&E caller ID flashed in his phone screen, and Blevins thought it must be a legitimate call.

“So, I asked, ‘How do I fix this thing?’” he said.

He was transferred to someone in the “billing department.” But Blevins grew skeptical.

He asked the person how his prior payment could be traced through PG&E’s billing system. “He then got impatient with me and was going to transfer me back to customer service and put me on hold,” Blevins recalled. “After checking PG&E’s website. I knew right off the bat they were trying to scam me.”

Blevins hung up rather than deal with the female customer service rep again, and realized he was nearly taken in.

“They were so well set up and very organized and obviously had a lot of money invested in a very professionally managed scam,” he said.

Immediately after Blevins conveyed the story to the online investigative website 7 on Your Side Consumer Reports, posted by ABC 7 TV news. They contacted PG&E, who soon sent a camera crew to interview Blevins to archive his experience as a warning to other customers.

“Right after, I warned my neighbors and then posted my story on nextdoor.com (website to get tips and buy and sell items), ” he said. “I got over 200 comments within two days with similar stories, and apparently it’s widespread. But I learned from the comments the best thing to do is hang up and then call them back on the number on their billing (or 800 number) and you’ll never hear from them again.”

Customers should never buy a prepaid card to avoid service disconnection, McFarland said. PG&E does not specify how customer should make a bill payment, yet offers multiple ways to pay. This includes online, by phone, automatic bank draft, mail or in-person.

Customers who incur a delinquent account are typically informed by mail, which is included with the regular monthly bill. Scammers can forge authentic-looking 800-prefix numbers showing in a customer’s phone display.

If doubts arise, McFarland recommended checking with PG&E at 1-800-743-5000. And customers can sign up for paperless billing, or access helpful alerts through the company website.

William Roller is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at wroller@theunion.com

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