Scams hit customers on both sides of border

A man in the dark looking out the window.

Working to stop scammers who prey on fear.

Nobody likes a power outage. At best, loss of electricity is an inconvenience; at worst, it means the loss of life or money. Unfortunately, while many people across North America are physically distancing or isolating, scammers across the continent are using this fear of outages to swindle unsuspecting utility customers.

Utilities United Against Scams (UUAS), an industry organization dedicated to combating fraudsters pretending to be power utilities, was formed to help thwart these threats. Sharing what scammers are up to, best practices for communicating about fraud, and some tips on scam public awareness are some of the ways UUAS helps utilities get ahead in the never-ending race between legitimate businesses and con artists.

Like many other provinces and states, Manitoba is no stranger to scams. Prior to the pandemic, the most common scam Manitoba Hydro dealt with was sophisticated phone calls that spoofed its number, mimicked its phone menu system, and threatened to disconnect power if customers didn’t pay their bill right away. Recipients of this type of phone call would be directed to a Bitcoin ATM, often wiring between $1,000 and $3,000 into an untraceable account. Small businesses were the most common target.

But now, with many more people at home during the pandemic, scammers are trying again with residential customers. They even leave messages on home answering machines and voicemail. It’s the same thing as the business scams: fraudsters use a dummy 1-800 phone number, claim the account is in arrears and threaten immediate disconnection if it isn’t paid, and then direct customers to pay up at Bitcoin ATMs or to send wire transfers.

Nobody likes a power outage – but they like being scammed even less. So what can utilities do? Stay vigilant and be diligent.

We work with UUAS, other utilities across Canada and the United States, and local police to share ideas and best practices. Enhancing public awareness is one of the most potent tools in our arsenal. By communicating frequently to customers through traditional and social media channels, keeping our front-facing staff up-to-date about the nature of the latest cons, and working with law enforcement, Manitoba Hydro hopes to stop customers from being unfairly taken advantage of during a time of crisis.