PSEG Long Island officials are warning residents to be on the lookout for phone scams, reminding customers that the utility has stopped power shut-offs due to missing payments during the pandemic.
Officials said scams often target PSEG customers — although they have been declining slightly in recent years — and residents should report suspicious phone calls.
PSEG security experts have received about 1,600 phone calls during the COVID-19 pandemic from March through August, about a 5% decline in the past seven years. Officials haven't seen a large spike during the pandemic or during storm repairs following Hurricane Isaias.
"We’re trying to get the word out as much as possible. The best way to combat scams is through education," said Robert Vessichelli, a senior security investigator for PSEG Long Island. "We didn’t see a jump in calls during the storm. We usually see a jump during the holidays. The scammers bank on people being a little crazy and busy and not really paying attention to their bank account. They’re more vulnerable at those times."
The majority of scam calls demand immediate payment, often using prepaid debit cards, threatening to shut off power within hours for past due bills, Vessichelli said. PSEG also does not accept prepaid debit cards and would not shut off power within hours, Vessichelli said. PSEG also does not except bitcoin.
PSEG is following state guidelines for no power shut-offs for nonpayment, officials said, so any calls with threats of a shut-off due to nonpayment during this time would be a scam.
Legislation signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo banning the shut-off of utility service for nonpayment is in effect until April 2021.
Once a victim hands over money, there’s little that can be done to get that money back. PSEG works with a national organization of utility companies to shut down scam phone numbers, but new numbers pop up.
The scammers, who may be calling from other countries, can mask their numbers using a fake PSEG caller ID number. Scammers will often ask customers to go purchase a prepaid debit card or gift card and call back a number to return payment.
Customers should monitor their payment history with PSEG and hang up immediately if they suspect a scam, Vessichelli said.
Other scams include requesting a deposit to replace an electric meter, which PSEG does not charge for, or phishing calls requesting bank information to offer a rebate for an overcharge or a power outage rebate.
"If you suspect it’s a scam, assume that it is," Vessichelli said. "If it sounds like a scam, it probably is a scam."
Tips to avoid scams
- SCAM: A person posing as local utility worker threatens to shut off the power if payment is not immediately made. Sometimes, the worker requests the money through a gift card. TIP: If you have doubts about the legitimacy of a call, call the utility company.
- SCAM: A caller asks the victim to wire money for a family member who is in trouble. The caller says the victim’s family member has been in an accident or is in jail and needs bail. The caller then pressures the victim to send cash without verifying the family member’s location. TIP: If you get a similar call, you should verify the relative’s whereabouts and don't give your financial or personal information over the phone.
- SCAM: A caller posing as a government employee, perhaps an IRS worker, tells the victim that he will be arrested if he doesn't pay up. TIP: The IRS doesn't call to demand immediate payment using a specific payment method such as a prepaid debit card, gift card or wire transfer. Generally, the IRS mails a bill to anyone who owes back taxes. If you know, or believe, that you owe taxes, call the IRS at 800-829-1040.
Ways to avoid fraud
- Don’t make online purchases using a public Wi-Fi network because it might not be a secure connection.
- Don’t make a purchase or donation if a website or caller seeks payment by wire transfer, gift card or prepaid card.
- Whenever you can, pay with plastic. Credit cards have built-in fraud protection.
- Be wary of your caller ID. Tech-savvy scammers can easily fake caller ID information. If the caller asks you for money or your personal information, simply hang up.
- Never give personal information to anyone you don't know — unless you initiated the contact.
- Don't let yourself be pressured into a verbal agreement or signing a contract.
- Be skeptical of online charitable solicitations and other online offers. If interested, ask to receive the information in the mail, and check to be sure that the company is legitimate.
- Never agree to pay for products or services in advance.
- Get estimates and ask for references on home repair offers and other products and services.
- If you hear a recorded sales pitch when you answer the phone, hang up and report it to the Federal Trade Commission. The products for sale are often fake and the calls themselves are illegal. And don’t press 1 to speak to a customer representative or to be taken off the list because that could mean more calls are in your future.
- If it's free, it might just be too good to be true. Some companies offer free trials to sign you up for products, then bill you every month unless you cancel. Before you agree to a free trial, research the company and read the cancellation policy. And always check your credit card and bank statements for charges that don't look familiar.
- Do a little sleuthing online. Type in the company or product name and "complaint" or "scam." You can even search for phone numbers to see if they are connected with scams.
— Robert Brodsky
Source: Suffolk County Police Department, National Crime Prevention Council, AARP, Federal Trade Commission