If you get an email or phone call from PG&E, the power company says, the best thing to do is to quickly hang up or delete it, because it’s most likely a robbery attempt.
At a Nov. 8 roundtable discussion with ethnic media, PG&E’s Fiona Chan, Matt Foley and Stephen Vuong asked for help in getting the word out to everyone, but particularly friends or family who may be less aware of how sophisticated scammers are becoming. “Education is key,” Chan said.
“The most-used scam,” Foley said, “is the threat of a power cutoff due to past-due bills – the truck is on the way!”
And scammers have fleeced tens of thousands of PG&E customers for millions of dollars in just the past few years.
Besides emphasizing that the company does not make bill-collection phone calls, or ever take payments in bitcoin, gift cards, or over Zelle, Venmo or PayPal, the speakers described some of the latest scams they’re hearing about.
One is to call a real estate company about a house someone’s trying to sell, to say that the power bill is overdue and the house will be plunged into darkness unless someone makes a payment.
The trick here is that when the owner gets a follow-up call from the Realtor relaying that message, he or she is more likely to think there really is a problem that needs to be solved, because the person telling them about it isn’t a stranger.
“We’re not going to call the Realtor,” Foley said. “We don’t have the number and we don’t give it out.”
People tricked into believing they need to make an immediate payment are unlikely to ever see that money again, because part of the thievery involves quickly transferring those funds overseas, out of the reach of law enforcement.
“I’ve worked with very few people who’ve gotten their money back,” Vuong said. “They move the money so fast.”
He said that for 95% of the cases he’s seen, the ill-gotten money quickly left the country. Many of the scams originate in phone banks located overseas.
Crooks have figured out that while pretending to be friendly and helpful, they can sometimes stay on the phone with their victim, directing him or her all the way to a nearby convenience store or “payment kiosk,” and providing step-by-step instructions on buying gift cards and other payment systems – some involving ‘crypto currency’ – while all they’re really doing is helping victims throw their money away.
Don’t be fooled by your phone’s “caller ID” feature, either. Crooks have figured out how to make it look as though their calls are coming from PG&E itself. They’re not.
Another way people get tricked is by “sponsored” websites made to look like PG&E’s, that show up at the top of computer searches for the company’s customer service contact information.
A web site that a search engine indicates is “sponsored” may very well not be PG&E’s but instead be from someone with bad intentions who paid to have that site prominently displayed at the top of search results.
Look to see that the site is actually pge.com.
One way to do so is to scroll over the address on display, which will sometimes reveal another, different address, masquerading as pge.com. Some of us might want to check with younger members of the family who often are more tech-savvy.
There’s a way to report suspected scams, at [email protected]. But it’s better not to fall for a ruse in the first place.
“Prevention is best,” Vuong said.
“I tell my 89-year-old Mom, who’s pretty sharp,” Foley said, “‘Don’t ever engage in this kind of thing. Everything financial, run through me!’”
People can be scared into making payments when they’re worried their power is at risk of being cut off, particularly if they’re struggling to pay their bills or know they’re late. But PG&E doesn’t call people about their past due bills, and has many ways to help people who’ve fallen behind.
“If you have difficulty paying the bills,” Chan said. “Please contact us. We have so many good assistance programs. We’re happy to work with you.”
The number for customer service is (800) 743-5000.
One of the roundtable guests asked about whether to trust third-party contractors who may claim to be PG&E partners, for instance, doing solar panel installations.
Don’t be cowed, “Call us if you feel uncomfortable. If they’re legit, they will understand.”
“There’s not a lot of uniqueness to these scams,” Foley said.
He told a story of how a convenience store employee saved someone from a $2,000 loss by overhearing the customer taking instructions over the phone about how to buy a gift card to send. “So the message is getting out,” he said.