Long before the undeniably challenging year we collectively know as 2020, scammers have plagued the utility industry. So much so, in 2016 the U.S. House of Representatives adopted a resolution designating the third Wednesday in November as Utility Scam Awareness Day.
Launched by Utilities United Against Scams (UUAS), a consortium of more than 145 utilities throughout the U.S. and Canada, this official day has grown into a weeklong event promoting public awareness and education about scams. This year’s scam awareness week kicks off Monday, Nov. 16th.
UUAS founder, Jared Lawrence, Vice President of Revenue Services and Metering at Duke Energy, is still at the forefront of its efforts, working closely with UUAS Executive Director Monica Martinez to ensure utilities are well equipped to educate the public about ongoing threats. This self-funded group is primarily comprised of volunteers who meet regularly to discuss how to combat current challenges.
THE NUMBERS TELL ALL
You’ve got to hand it to the scammers—they’re incredibly skilled at what they do. From using the same hold music as your call center to mimicking the language, tone and tenor of your outbound communications, scammers study your every move to fool your customers into believing they’re, well, you.
All told, they’re doing a decent job of it. According to the Internet Crimes Complaint Center, Americans lose $239 million annually to scammers, and a Harris poll reports 17.6 million Americans fall victim to phone scams each year.1
While these numbers may not surprise you, it’s worthy of noting that fraud victims aren’t necessarily elderly or uneducated, as stereotypes might tell us. In fact, 69% of victims are under 45 years old and 78% hold a college or graduate degree.2
Furthermore, the Federal Trade Commission suggests millennials are 25% more likely to report losing money to fraud, and utility fraud is among the top three types of identity theft reports.3
A SICK OPPORTUNITY
Leave it to con artists to prey on people when they’re most vulnerable. In March 2020, as public fears about the pandemic heightened, Americans received more than 132 million robocalls from scammers touting everything from at-home COVID-19 test kits to bogus health insurance policies.4 And as early as April, UUAS noted an uptick in fraudulent activity, with scammers threatening utility shutoffs if bills weren’t paid immediately.
“Right now, during the pandemic, people are particularly vulnerable because they’re highly stressed. Scammers are fully aware of this and scam attempts are increasing,” explains Lawrence.
With so many people working remotely during the pandemic, scammers are taking advantage, spoofing calls using phone numbers that may or may not look official with the simple explanation, “I’m working from home,” Lawrence notes.
THE UNINTENDED COST OF EDUCATION
Thanks to UUAS’ efforts, utilities can take advantage of ready-to-brand infographics for social media outlets, as well as ready-to-deploy news releases to increase awareness about current scam tactics.
With the unfortunate reality that some customers may find themselves in financial straits due to COVID-19-related unemployment, it’s critical for you to be acutely aware of how and what you communicate. In educating customers about the dangers of fraud, might there be the unintended consequence of undermining your own legitimate messaging?
More than ever, people are leery of outreach – and some may assume that what you’re offering isn’t legitimate. For example, if you’re offering bill credits, there’s a chance your customers won’t trust that your messaging is actually coming from you.
How can you assure them that it is?
THE POWER OF OMNI
While scammers are ever improving their methods and techniques, their efforts tend to be unilateral in nature. They’re either calling their intended victims, visiting them in person, emailing them, or texting them, but not all four at the same time.
Whatever your message, use every channel available, preferably in tandem. Approaching your communications this way will ensure your customers that what you’re offering is legitimate.
“Consistency is also vital,” notes Jack Ukropina, Vice President of Marketing at Message Broadcast. “Message your customers early and often, using the same verbiage in every message. This helps to reinforce trust.
“When you address potential delinquencies or offer assistance with the introduction of payment plans,” he continues, “do so as soon as possible with empathetic, non-threatening language; it will assure customers you’re on their side.”
You might also accompany this type of messaging with scam awareness tips. If, for example, you send a text, include a link to an educational landing page.
Furthermore, as Martinez points out, it’s important that customers feel empowered to ask questions and contact their utility if something doesn’t sound above board.5
DESPERATELY SEEKING DATA
One of the biggest hurdles is a lack of data. Encouraging customers and making it easy for them to report fraud – even if the attempt failed – is critical. Recording and tracking fraudulent attempts by scammers will help articulate exactly how prevalent these crimes are.
Ultimately, with this type of data in hand, UUAS hopes to bring about legislative change that will close existing loopholes, including making it more difficult to anonymously secure cheap phone lines and requiring that payment is traceable.
To join UUAS, please email Jared Lawrence at email@example.com.