Everyday con artists work hard to rip-off innocent, unsuspecting victims. As scam artists become more aggressive and sophisticated in their techniques, utility companies throughout the nation — including here in Arizona — have also been working to educate customers and derail scammers.

For the second consecutive year, SRP, APS and Southwest Gas are collaborating with Utilities United Against Scams (UUAS) to educate customers about threats, techniques and tools used by criminals and to provide tips to avoid being victimized.

UUAS is a consortium of more than 100 U.S. and Canadian electric, water and natural gas companies — and their respective trade associations — working across the industry with regulators, law enforcement, and other telecommunications partners to educate and raise awareness to stop scams targeting utility customers. This past year, UUAS and its member companies have helped shut down more than 2,200 toll-free numbers used by scammers against utility customers.

“We take it personally each time we learn that our customers are being targeted by scammers or have been victimized,” said Michael Mendonca, SRP senior director of Customer Services. “SRP works diligently year-round to educate our customers about ongoing scams. Recently we have seen scam attempts targeting both residential and business customers who are being told to make a payment via Bitcoin or prepaid card or face disconnection. SRP doesn’t accept these forms of payment.”

Utility and law enforcement officials caution that if someone calls, texts, emails or appears at a residence stating payment is required immediately, it is most likely a high-pressure con artist. Customers are urged to tell the individual that they need to confirm they are speaking with a legitimate utility employee and call a verified number for the utility company found on the company’s website or a monthly bill.

“Southwest Gas will never contact our customers to ask for payment over the phone — or threaten immediate cancellation of natural gas service,” said Jose Esparza, Southwest Gas vice president of Customer Engagement. “We are proud to be part of the communities we serve and will continue to work with our customers, the public and fellow utilities to help put a stop to utility scams.”

Although scammers often modify techniques through changing technology, there are consistent methods of operation. For example, con artists will create a feeling of pressure and urgency to disrupt a target’s logical thought process.

“Scammers are very convincing, preying on customers’ fears and often targeting the most vulnerable including senior citizens, low-income communities and small business owners during their busiest times of day,” said Stacy Derstine, APS vice president of Customer Service and chief customer officer. “We urge customers to be especially observant as the holiday season approaches and scammers try to take advantage during the hustle and bustle this time of year.”

A recent report conducted by First Orion, a company that offers caller ID and call-blocking data, projected that about half of all cellphone calls next year will come from scammers. The report — called the 2018 Scam Call Trends and Projects Report — said spam calls represented 3.7 percent of calls in 2017. In 2018, the number jumped to 29 percent. In 2019, First Orion predicts spam calls will represent 45 percent of all calls, with immigrant communities being the most highly targeted.

“Electric, water and natural gas services are vital to our everyday lives, and scammers are continually attempting to take advantage of utility customers,” said UUAS Executive Committee member and former state utility consumer advocate Sheri Givens. “It is important for customers to be vigilant to combat impostor utility scams, and it also is important for customers to call their utilities directly if they have any questions about the status of their accounts or law enforcement officials if they suspect any fraudulent activity.” 

If customers suspect they have been the target or victim of fraud, it is important they also alert the Arizona Attorney General’s office, which has lines available for both English and Spanish speakers. The number is (602) 542-5763.