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Police: Cold Weather Prompts Uptick in Scams, Utility Company Impersonations

Police departments across the Midwest and East are warning homeowners and businesses to be on alert for scams tied to the cold winter weather.

Scammers have been targeting residents in western Massachusetts by calling them and threatening to shut off their electricity amid the recent arctic blast, WWLP in Springfield, Massachusetts, reported.

Using the idea of being without heat or electric in the cold as a scare tactic, the fraudsters will impersonate an employee with the utility company and tell the unsuspecting consumer they have an overdue payment in their account. Then they threaten to shut off the power if they don't receive payment via a pre-paid card within several hours.

This scam has been around for several years and used to go by the name "Green Dot Scam" referring to the pre-paid debit card the scammers wanted the victims to use, according to Priscilla Ress, media relations specialist for Western Massachusetts Electric Company (WMECo).

"For this scheme to work, scam artists count on scaring a customer into suspending common sense and paying out a large amount of untraceable money quickly, so there's no time to stop and think," Ress said in an email.

Restaurants and ‘mom and pop' stores are popular targets especially during heat waves in the summer because they don't want to lose air conditioning or refrigeration, Ress said. It's the same during the winter when people don't want to be left out in the cold, she added.

For those that may encounter such a scam, Ress said that it's best to think before you act and should hang up and call your local utility company immediately. WEMECo does not accept pre-paid cards from its customers, she explained.

Over the past several years, Ress said they have been warning customers and doing extensive outreach to help them thwart these scams.

"More and more we are hearing from folks who have heeded our warnings, letting us know they've been contacted by someone demanding money or it's lights out, and they didn't fall for it," she said. "Our mission is to keep up the outreach and hopefully make this scam obsolete."

Such brazen schemes are not uncommon and have been reported elsewhere across the country recently.

In December, an uptick in these fraudulent calls was reported in Madison, Wisconsin, according to WKOW in Madison. However, the volume of those calls has since decreased according to Steve Schultz, corporate communications manager for Madison Gas and Eclectic, which serves about 145,000 customers.

The company received upwards of 30 calls from customers over the first week and a half in December, which was "definitely a high number of calls," according to Schultz, who also said that other utilities in the state have seen scam activity.

"They do kind of tend to come in bunches; all of a sudden, we'll notice that our customers are getting a bunch of calls, then it will kind of quiet down for a while," he said. "[The scammers] mostly target small businesses is what we're finding."

Some states, including Massachusetts, have moratoriums in place during the winter that prevent gas and electric companies from shutting off electricity to residents if they're struggling to pay their bills, although requirements vary by state.

Wisconsin's moratorium runs from Nov. 1 through April 15, and Schultz said there was an uptick in calls back in October as the moratorium approached.

Madison Police public information officer Joel DeSpain told WKOW that many of the callers use a "spoofing technology," so the utility company will show up on a person's caller ID and many of the numbers the schemers use can be traced to overseas locations.

State officials around the nation are cautioning against this type of criminal activity.

Last week, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane warned residents throughout the state to be on the lookout for winter home improvement scams from "storm chasers," who will prey on those in need of home repair.

"Con artists are always on the prowl for ways to take advantage of consumers," Kane said in a news release. "It is important for consumers to stay educated and be proactive during freezing and inclement weather."

Back in November, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper and Duke Energy warned of telephone fraud against customers throughout the state. Schemers targeted Duke Energy customers last year, in addition to electrical cooperatives, WFMY in Greensboro, North Carolina, reported.

"Scammers continue to make calls threatening consumers and small businesses to pay up or lose power, and we're concerned that the cold weather will give their threats extra force," Cooper said in a news release. "We want to put consumers and small business owners on high alert to watch out for these calls."