Scammers target utility customers

Southeast Texans should be aware of an energy scam, according to a consumer alert by the Office of the Attorney General of Texas.

According to the alert, the scammers are “using in-person solicitations, social media, fliers, phone calls and text messages ... claiming that a new federal program established by the Obama administration is providing a free utility bill payment.”

This is a claim Debi Derrick, communications specialist at Entergy Texas in Beaumont, says is fraudulent.

“We want to make sure our customers are aware that a scam is underway so that they can be prepared,” Derrick said. “If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.”

Most Americans are experiencing high energy bills during the summer due to rising temperatures, resulting in an increase in energy usage. The scam exploits this problem by suggesting that the federal government will help pay customers’ electric bills to offer relief.

Through various methods, scammers try to convince customers “that a new federal assistance program is available that will pay up to $1,000 on their utility or credit card bills,” the Better Business Bureau (BBB) said in a recent report.

The BBB report also states that in some instances, victims are given phony bank account and routing numbers to use when paying their bills online, but only after “registering” their Social Security numbers and other personal information.

While this seems to be a nationwide issue, Texas hasn’t seen a lot of cases, according to Wes Reeves, a representative from XCEL Energy in Amarillo.“There are cases of (the scam) in multiple states, but we haven’t seen so much of it within our Texas territory,” Reeves said.

Reeves said the company is still investigating the problem.

“We don’t really know its impact,” Reeves said. “We haven’t heard of a lot of problems in Texas, but we did want to get the word out to customers so they will be aware of it and try to prevent some problems.”

Derrick said that out of more than 400,000 Entergy customers in Southeast Texas, fewer than 50 were affected.

Tom Kelley, a spokesperson from the Attorney General’s Office, also said the cases were limited.

“Our consumer office received one complaint in May on this subject from a Houston consumer,” Kelley said. “No others. The consumer alerts are issued, in part, as a way to prevent such a thing from happening.”

Customers should take the warning seriously, however.

“Customers who use the fraudulent bank routing number are still responsible for their utility bills and must make payments on their own,” the Attorney General’s office says.

Entergy suggests that customers should only use authorized methods to pay their bills, such as online through “My Account,” by phone through “Bill Matrix,” by utilizing the walk-in payment centers throughout Southeast Texas, by using auto pay bank draft, or by sending a check through the U.S. mail.

If customers find themselves victims to this scam, they should take immediate action, Derrick said.

“We need to know if they feel like they have been scammed. That’s the first starting point,” Derrick said. “Any customer who believes they are a victim of the scam can notify the proper authorities. They can notify the police if they like. They can call the Attorney General’s Office, Better Business Bureau, or other agencies. If they believe that their Entergy account has been affected, they need to call 1-800-ENTERGY (1-800-368-3749).”


Protect yourself

The Attorney General’s Office suggests tips to prevent this scam from affecting utility customers:

  • Never provide Social Security numbers, credit card numbers or bank account information to anyone who requests it during an unsolicited phone call or in-home visit.
  •  If someone calls claiming to represent a utility and demands immediate payment or personal information, hang up the phone and call the customer service number on the utility bill. Texans should never give in to high-pressure calls seeking personal information.