Utility companies warn customers of scam artists

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CHICAGO — Utility companies are warning customers about scam artists posing as service representatives.

They are reporting an increase in the number of scam artists preying on vulnerable customers' fears that a payment was missed and service may be disconnected.

The number of reported scams rises with warmer weather, according to the Better Business Bureau. In the past few years, there has been a nationwide trend of scammers posing as utility workers.

ComEd, Nicor Gas, Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas, along with the Illinois Commerce Commission (ICC) and the Citizens Utility Board (CUB) are working to warn customers about the scam.

"Utility impostor scams are absolutely despicable," said Jim Chilsen, CUB communications director.  "They take advantage of our fear of losing a service we can't do without.  They instill fear to bill people out of hundreds, if not thousands of dollars."

"We are seeing more Spanish-speaking customers, seniors and small businesses throughout our territory targeted with these types of scams," said Martin Montes, ComEd's director of Regulatory Affairs.

Someone posing as a utility worker will visit a home looking for personal and account information.  In some cases, they ask to come inside.  Scam artists tell customers that their billing cycle has changed, and payment is needed. They also tell customers that their account is past due, and payment is required immediately to avoid disconnection.

These scams can also happen by phone.  Customers are instructed to buy a prepaid credit card and call back with the card's PIN.

"In most cases, utilities are required to provide advance notice prior to the disconnection of service," said Cholly Smith, executive director of the ICC.

If customers are in doubt as to whether a request or encounter is legitimate, they are encouraged to call the phone number on their utility bill.  Customers should also know utility field workers in Illinois do not accept payments from customers.

Anyone who believes to have been a target of a scam is asked to contact the Illinois Attorney General's office.