The Caller ID on her phone indicated that she was talking with someone from DTE Energy.
The power company claimed she owed $1,900 and if she didn’t pay her service would be cut off in late April.
The number on the ID was 800-477-4747 — the real phone number for the utility. The caller on the line seemed willing to work with her. When the Troy woman said she couldn’t pay it all at once, the caller agreed to accept $700 to keep the service on.
The Troy woman panicked and paid $700 via the mobile wallet Zelle, according to the police report, before she realized that the whole thing was nothing but a scam.
Fake Caller ID can trick many
The $700 loss is one more reminder that one can’t be too careful when it comes to Caller ID — and it’s another reminder that scammers are impersonating utility companies once again. Oddly enough, they’re asking you to pay by money transfer apps, like Zelle.
If you authorize a payment via Zelle, even if it’s a scam, you may not be able to get your money back. You’d never give cash to a stranger, so you have to treat Zelle the same way.
All across the country, we’re hearing of more reports of utility shutoff scams. In Iowa, MidAmerican Energy customers reported receiving threatening calls from scammers about unpaid bills. Con artists who appeared to be from Domininon Gas in Ohio even showed up at the door in some areas threatening shutoffs, according to the Better Business Bureau Serving Greater Cleveland.
Energy bills went up significantly during the cold weather months. Such scams aren’t limited to winter, though, as scammers can pop up after the air conditioning has been running non-stop and driving up bills.
Scammers try to scare you into thinking that your service will be shut off as soon as 30 minutes from now. When you’re fearful, the odds go up that you’ll hand over your bank account or credit card information.
Michigan consumers are seeing a flood of calls this spring from utility robocalls that claim to be coming from DTE.
DTE tracks the number of cases where customers confirmed they’ve paid a scammer or provided sensitive information and DTE has received reports of 47 scam cases this year, according to Katie Susko, a spokeswoman for DTE.
So far in 2022, Susko said, 97% of the shutoff scams requested payment through Zelle and 3% requested payment through a Green Dot prepaid debit card.
An Allen Park victim knew he was one day past due and feared a shutoff in late January when he handed over the $376.96 he owed to scammers via the Zelle app, according to earlier reports.
The Caller ID often reads “DTE GAS FIELD” and the number listed appears to be DTE’s phone number, according to a warning from the Better Business Bureau Serving Eastern Michigan & the Upper Peninsula.
In some cases, you might receive a lookalike email that appears to be from DTE.
Don’t send money to strangers by Zelle
If you pick up on of these shutoff robocalls, you’d hear an automated recording that claims your service is about to be disconnected. In some cases, the caller might even know your name and address, which makes the call sound more believable.
Allowing someone to pay by Zelle might be easier than asking them to put money on gift cards. Consumers have heard plenty of warnings about how scammers use gift cards to get fast cash.
But you might not realize that Zelle doesn’t offer a protection program for authorized payments and says you should use the app to pay friends, relatives or co-workers, only people that you trust.
Unfortunately, consumers who trust their utility company might not realize that they’re dealing with an imposter who is attempting to scam them.
The best defense remains simply to not engage. Do not to answer the phone or hang up immediately.
When scammers leave voicemails impersonating DTE, they will leave a call back number that isn’t for the real DTE customer service line.
But when the customer calls the number back, Susko warns, the person often will hear a similar automated voice message to DTE’s call center.
“It’s important for customers to only call the DTE customer service line,” Susko said.
More:17 questions could help protect Michigan credit union members from fraud
Impersonation is part of the scam game
Remember, scammers are able to use new technology that can make a message look more believable through lookalike phone numbers, emails and automated voice messages.
Scammers have been known to spoof the Michigan State Police, claiming that they’re demanding an investigation so an investigation and then that you supposedly avoid or other legal legal.
Another utility robocall twist: The callers convince you that you’ve been overpaying on a utility bill and are now entitled to a cash refund. The Federal Trade warns Commission that call could be a ploy to get you to switch service providers.
Ways to spot some of these bill payment scams:
- Is this robocall the first time you’re hearing of trouble? Before any shutoffs, a utility is typically going to notify you several times via mail or phone about non-payment issues. DTE customers are mailed a physical rebill when a bill has lapsed, which is a normal billing statement but printed in red with shutoff alerts. A notice of intent will contain information on how much the customer needs to pay and by when to avoid a service interruption.
- Is someone demanding money right now? A real utility isn’t going to do that. DTE customers could be contacted by phone to alert a customer of a past due balance. “Our customer service representatives will discuss payment assistance programs. DTE will never use threatening or bullying behavior and will not demand immediate payment,” according to the utility.
- Even if the caller insists your services will be shut off, never give banking information over the phone unless you place the call to a number you know is legitimate, according to a warning by the Federal Trade Commission.
- Did someone just show up at the door? DTE will never collect payment for utilities at your home or business. Some onsite visits from DTE may be unexpected, but DTE will make every attempt to contact a customer before visiting a home or business. Ask for a personal identification badge or call 800-477-4747 to verify the work at your home.
- Is someone telling you how you must pay the bill? A legitimate utility gives you a variety of ways to pay. DTE said it isn’t going to demand money via Zelle, prepaid debit card or Bitcoin to pay your bill.
- You can report scams at BBB.org/scamtracker.
- Also report the utility scam online to the Michigan Public Service Commission at www.michigan.gov/mpsc/consumer/complaints or call 800-292-9555.
- If you suspect you have been contacted by a utility imposter, the Michigan Department of Attorney General advises that you call the number for that service provider listed on your utility bill. They can confirm the status of your account, make arrangements to protect your account, and assist you with a payment plan if necessary.
- If you believe that you may have been a victim of fraud or scams, realize it can happen to anyone, according to tips from JPMorgan Chase. Take immediate action. Contact your bank, credit card issuer or local law enforcement to report the fraud or scam.
DTE encourages customers to stop and challenge the first caller. Ask the caller to tell you the amount owed on your latest bill. Or tell the caller to state your account number.
Call the DTE customer service line yourself at 800-477-4747 to verify any email or call.
Utility companies aren’t imposing unrealistic deadlines, like paying up in the next 30 minutes or next two hours. Or asking for Social Security numbers for unpaid bills Or payments via gift cards or Zelle.
ContactSusan Tompor via firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter@tompor. To subscribe, please go to freep.com/specialoffer. Read more on business and sign up for our business newsletter.