PhotoThieves have used the “utility bill scam” to try cheating honest people out of their money for about as long as utility companies have existed. But a local-news story out of Arkansas this week showcased an uncommon variant of the scam: the would-be thieves didn't merely claim to be from the local electric company, but appeared to have evidence proving it.

In a typical utility-bill scam, or utility scam, scammers posing as bill collectors from the local utility company call people or businesses and threaten to turn off their electricity immediately unless the victims pay up. Real utility companies don't actually operate like that – they'll send cutoff notices through the mail, rather than make threatening phone calls – but the threat of losing electricity within the hour is usually dire enough to make some people panic, and fall for the scam.

This week, in Hot Springs Village, Arkansas, a utility scammer managed to extort money from a veterinarian's office. There's nothing particularly unusual about that — but what is unusual is that this time, the scammer somehow had access to oddly specifc details which only the electric company would ordinarily have.

Becky Brandt, who handles bill payments and phon communications for Village Veterinary Service, told that “That's what is scary about all of this, they can have your account number and what your bills are.”

Spoofed phone number

Indeed, the scammers had the veterinarian's account number and payment history with local electric company Entergy Arkansas. In addition, the scammers called from a spoofed phone number, so that the veterinarian's caller ID falsely identified the call as coming from Entergy.

They demanded $1,000 from Brandt, and said they'd cut off the power if she didn't pay it — which would seriously impede the office's ability to care for sick animals. Brandt said, “Without electricity we have no heat. We don't have any water. You can't clean.”

No matter where you live in the United States, your local electric company is not going to call you over the phone to threaten you with possible disconnection, so if ever you get such a call, feel free to hang up.

But suppose you're the worrying type, and can't quite bring yourself to completely ignore such a dire threat, just in case it really is the electric company behind it. In that instance, thank your caller for bringing this past-due bill to your attention, assure the caller you'll take care of it immediately, then hang up before the caller can say anything else – and call your electric company's payment office, to see if you actually are on the verge of disconnection for non-payment.

The answer is almost certain to be “no” – if you really were about to lose power, you'd have received letters at your home, and probably a notice in your last electric bill, too – so be glad you didn't waste money on that utility scam, and make sure your friends and neighbors know to watch out for it, too.

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