Utility scammers targeting Louisiana customers
Since alerting the public to a pair of utility-related scams on Wednesday, Public Service Commissioner Eric Skrmetta said approximately 100 additional reports have been received by his office and by utility providers throughout the state.
One of the cons involves unknown persons visiting consumers at home to collect payment for their utility bills. The criminal pretends to collect information for a company called Bill Matrix — a legitimate company not involved in the scam — and gleans from consumers their social security numbers and other personal information. Victims are told their bill will be paid through this system, but the bill is never paid and funds are withdrawn from the consumer’s account.
In the other scam, consumers are receiving electronic messages telling them their utility bills are being paid by the federal government with monies collected from the BP oil spill settlement. Customers are directed to provide personal information and are given a routing number. Electronic payments appear to go through but are later rejected and the same situation results, with service disconnects and the release of personal information that often results in theft directly from the victims’ bank accounts.
Cleco has received calls from customers regarding the fraudulent claim that utility bills can be paid through a federal grant authorized by President Barack Obama.
“We don’t want our customers to become victims of this scam,” said Shirley Turner, general manager of customer experience management.
Cleco has heard from customers throughout the state, however, most who have contacted the company are in Slidell. According to customers, letters with instructions are being distributed door to door. Customers are asked to call a toll-free number where they are asked for personal information from the back of their Social Security cards and provided with a routing number. Customers then use the routing number to make electronic payments to Cleco.
“Initially, the customer thinks the bill got paid,” said Turner, “But when the payment is processed, it gets rejected. There is no federal account set up to pay these bills.”
Cleco warns customers never to provide personal information such as Social Security or banking information to a person going door to door or to an unknown party over the phone.
“I’ve talked with local sheriffs, the state police and federal investigators about these crimes, and I encouraging citizens to continue calling utility providers and my office if you have been or suspect you have been victimized,” Skrmetta said. “From what we can tell, these scams have been occurring in multiple communities around Louisiana, and we are concerned more victims have not yet come forward. Consumers need to be very cautious and aware, and should report suspicious or criminal behavior immediately to law enforcement authorities and to the Public Service Commission.”
Anyone who has been a victim of these scams is asked to call Skrmetta’s office at 800-228-9368.