Energy news from Omaha Public Power District

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Utility scam reports are at an all-time high and climbing

February 3, 2020 | Jodi Baker | customer service, tips
utility scam, a hand holds a smartphone with an unknown caller id on the screen

In 2019, OPPD customers reported 1,336 utility scam phone calls, up a whopping 87% from the previous year. Reports are up 102% from five years ago.

The problem is not unique to our service territory. This con has been happening for years throughout our region, and the nation. Their tactics are similar, no matter the location: Callers falsely claim to work for the utility and try to get customers to pay money that they do not really owe. They threaten to disconnect service soon if customers don’t comply. Often, they instruct customers to purchase a Green Dot card, gift card, or pre-paid debit card and call them back with the numbers.

Year by Year Scam Reports 2014-2019

Scam Trends

OPPD tracks scam data closely as part of its efforts to combat this widespread problem. Of note from 2019:

  • January was the busiest month of the year, followed by May and September.
  • The slowest month for scammers was February, followed by April and December.

OPPD received the most reports of scam calls on Fridays (28.7%), followed by Thursdays (22%), Mondays (20.5%), Wednesdays (16.6%) and Tuesdays (12.1%). Calls tended to pick up speed shortly after highly-publicized storms where outages occurred, perhaps to try and capitalize on customer vulnerability.

Percentage of Scam Reports by month

“The more sophisticated scammers spoof a utility’s real phone number so they appear authentic on the caller ID,” said Nitin Gambhir, supervisor of Customer Care services for OPPD.

“Some even record utilities’ actual customer service messages so that when customers call back, they hear the same voice and menu they would hear if they called the utility.”

However, scammers will give a different number for customers to call back, one that’s not legitimate.

“Whenever one of our customers gets a call like this, we urge them to hang up and dial us directly at 402-536-4131 or 877-536-4131, toll-free, outside of the Omaha metro area. That’s the only way they can be sure who it is they are speaking with.”

Fighting back

OPPD works to inform customers of this scam through its website, oppd.com, news releases, billing inserts, Wire stories, social media, and other channels. However, as scammers pick up their pace, the utility must work harder to keep customers from falling victim.

The district recently joined Utilities United Against Scams, a partnership of utilities from across the country to learn and share best practices on scam prevention.

“We’re also working with utilities closer to home, including Lincoln Electric System, Nebraska Public Power District and MidAmerican Energy,” said Gambhir.

“We’re working to raise more awareness, and we’re trying to track local trends so that we can warn one another when a new wave of calls may be coming.”

Stopping numbers

OPPD is also working with a leading registry management company that manages more than 40 million toll-free phone numbers.

“Through this partnership, we can report any toll-free numbers used by scammers that our customers report to us. Once we verify it’s a non-OPPD number, we can get that phone number shut down,” said Gambhir.

OPPD also relays information about scammers’ phone numbers to the Nebraska Attorney General’s office.

“We’ll keep working on solutions to this growing problem,” said Gambhir. “We want to protect our customers and shut these scammers down.”

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About Jodi Baker

Jodi Baker writes stories and shoots videos for The Wire. Jodi was a television news reporter before she came to work for OPPD as a media specialist in 2013. Jodi earned her degree in broadcasting from the University of Nebraska-Omaha. She's worked for news stations from her hometown of Omaha to sunny San Diego. She’s married with two bright and energetic children (a boy and a girl) and an allergy-ridden little Cairn Terrier. She and her husband enjoy catching up on some grown-up DVR time once the kiddos are asleep.

View all posts by Jodi Baker >

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