Beware of bill payment scam

The Better Business Bureau of Minnesota and North Dakota issued a warning to businesses and consumers Monday about a scam claiming President Barack Obama will pay their utility bills through a new federal program. The following article explores how the same scam has affected other states.

Beware of Bill Payment Scam

By Victoria A. Rocha, ECT (Electric Co-op Today) Staff Writer

As electric bills rise because of summer temperatures, a handful of consumer-members at electric cooperatives have fallen prey to a coast-to-coast telemarketing scam offering bogus help with energy bills.

Bogus telemarketers are telling consumers that President Obama will pay their electric bills if they provide personal information.

Co-ops are warning members about the scam in which residents are told that President Obama will help pay energy bills under a special federal program if they provide personal information, such as a bank routing number or their Social Security number.

“We urge our members to guard their personal accounting and banking information and never share this information with family, friends or strangers,” said a message on the website of Mid-Carolina Electric Cooperative.

Six members at the Lexington, S.C., co-op were bilked, and a few even had power cut off as a result, said Eddie Richardson, vice president for member services. In one instance, the co-op blocked a bank routing number given to a consumer who had provided a Social Security number.

“They were thinking their bill was paid without checking with us to be sure,” said Richardson, who notified the state’s department of consumer affairs about the incidents. “Others called us, saying they didn’t get credit on their accounts.”

Better Business Bureaus in several states also have issued consumer warnings, as well as attorneys general in Mississippi, North Carolina and Arizona and elsewhere.

“We have taken hundreds of calls at this point, probably topping 1,000, from Mississippi residents concerning this scam,” said Jan Schaefer, a spokeswoman at the state’s attorney general office.

It’s unknown how many have lost money, and the cases are under investigation, said Schaefer.

“Many of those callers have indicated to us that they turned over personal identifying information after talking to a person they believed was offering them help paying their bills.”

At Southern Pine Electric Power Association, a few members also have fallen victim to the scam, and the Taylorsville, Miss., co-op is trying to help them, said Dan Davis manager of marketing/public relations.

If their power is cut off for non-payment, “they would have to pay restoration and connection fees. It could be a very expensive proposition,” said Davis, who has done outreach via social media and an appearance on a local radio show.

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