Scam plays on utility bill angle

Utility companies throughout the United States and Canada are warning their customers that scammers are calling residents and impersonating utility staff, claiming to be collecting on late bills.

Here's how the scam works. Your phone rings, and the person on the other end claims to be a representative from your local electric, water or gas company. You're told that you need to pay immediately or your utilities will be disconnected.

However, instead of accepting payment by credit card or check, the caller wants you to pay by prepaid debit card. The scammer instructs you to obtain a prepaid debit card and then call back.

Prepaid debit cards are becoming an increasingly popular method of payment for scammers. Wire transfer services have tightened security, so crooks have turned to these prepaid cards instead. The cards are difficult to trace and photo identification is not required to collect or spend the money.

Be sure you treat a prepaid card like cash and remember that transactions cannot be reversed.

Because local gas, water and electric companies do sometimes contact customers by phone, it can be difficult to tell a scammer from a legitimate agent. Here are some tips: 1. If a caller specifically asks you to pay by prepaid debit card, view it as a big red flag. Your utility company will accept a check or credit card. 2. If you feel pressured for immediate payment or personal information, hang up the phone and call the customer service number on your utility bill (not the number provided by the caller). This will ensure you are speaking to a real representative. 3. Never allow anyone into your home to check electrical wiring, natural gas pipes or appliances unless you have scheduled an appointment or reported a problem. Also, ask utility employees for proper identification.

Watch out for home improvement scams

Look out for home improvement contractors who leave your home worse than they found it. They usually knock on your door with a story or a deal -- the roofer who can spot some missing shingles on your roof or the paver with some leftover asphalt who can give you a great deal on driveway resealing. Itinerant contractors move around, keeping just a step ahead of the law ... and angry consumers. Many BBB-accredited businesses are home contractors who want to make sure you know they are legitimate, trustworthy and dependable. Find one at www.bbb.org/search or call us at 800-552-4631.

Thank you

A big thank you to all who attended the BBB Investment Fraud Seminar. We enjoyed being with you. It is our hope that you benefited from the program and above all will not become a victim of investment fraud. Remember: ask and check.

Dreama Jensen is area director of the Better Business Bureau serving Northern Indiana. Contact the BBB at 574-675-9351 or visit www.bbb.org.

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