November 12, 2020

Together, utilities helped stop scammers

At the height of the pandemic, scammers preyed on Duke Energy customers with an alarming frequency. The good news? Most people didn’t fall for it.

Duke Energy Vice President of Revenue Services Jared Lawrence thinks that’s partly because customers knew Duke Energy wasn’t disconnecting power for unpaid bills from March through September, but also because of the work of Utilities United Against Scams. Lawrence founded the group five years ago to bring together nearly 150 utilities in the United States and Canada to educate customers about scammers and advocate for policies that protect them. 

“If we can work together as an industry, we can get policy makers and law enforcement to pay attention and take action,” he said. “We’re very powerful when we all work together.”

When the campaign started in 2016, more than 9 percent of Duke Energy customers who reported scams lost money. So far this year, less than 3 percent have reported falling for scams.

In addition to education campaigns, Utilities United Against Scams has worked with the telecommunications industry to block more than 9,400 phone numbers used to scam customers, and the U.S. House of Representatives designated the third Wednesday of November as National Utility Scam Awareness Day.

Duke Energy customers alone have been scammed of more than $2 million since the company started tracking reports in 2015. According to the Federal Trade Commission, Americans lost $667 million to imposter scams in 2019. Most of these were phone calls where a scammer asks the victim to send a pre-paid card as payment. For utility customers, scammers usually demand immediate payment with the threat of a power disconnection within the hour.

The latest scam trend to appear during the pandemic has been a promise to mail refunds for overpayments on a customer’s account if the scammer can confirm the customer’s personal data – including birthdays and Social Security numbers. Customers should know that Duke Energy will apply refunds as a credit to customers’ accounts and will not contact customers to verify personal information in order to mail a check.

When Lawrence realized how prevalent the scams were, he knew he had to do something to help.

“We weren’t going to leave all these people hanging to be victimized by criminals,” he said. “They need our help.”

The group continues to advocate for policies that will protect customers including a more thorough vetting process for businesses purchasing toll-free numbers and protections for those who purchase pre-paid cards, which often are not traceable and non-reversible once scammers swipe the money.

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