PhotoScams seem to be cyclical. The "Grandparents scam" was big for a while, but faded away once the public began hearing about it. But now it's back, ensnaring senior citizens once again.

That's how scammers operate. If a scheme proves to be effective, it will be sure to make a comeback at some point.

Hiya, which makes software to protect mobile phones from spam, reports utility scams rose 109% in 2016, as scammers took advantage of unseasonably cold and hot weather.

“Scammers are constantly looking for new ways to defraud consumers and we’ve seen triple digit growth in utility company scams in the past year,” said Jan Volzke, vice-president for reputation data at Hiya. “While many consumers now know to be wary of calls claiming to be from the IRS or offering a free cruise that seems too good to be true, the latest threat comes disguised in the form of the utility companies that we trust to provide our basic services, like gas and electricity.”

How it works

Though there are different variations to the scheme, it usually operates like this: the scammer calls consumers and tells them their utility bill is overdue. They must pay immediately or face a cut-off.

An elderly consumer getting such a call in the dead of winter might not question it, gladly providing access to his or her bank account or credit card in order to avoid losing power.

Hiya analyzes more than 3.5 billion calls and texts each month, looking for the tell-tale signs of a scam. It says the utility companies that scammers most often claimed to be affiliated with were General Electric, Duke Energy, ConEd, Georgia Power, and Consumers Energy.

Analyzes 3.5 billion calls a month

Hiya analyzed data from more than 3.5 billion calls and texts it processes each month to help consumers identify the signs of utility scam calls.

In addition to threatening to shut off electricity, other variations of the scam promise to lower utility bills. The scammer will ask the victim for billing information in order to review the account. With the billing information, the scammer takes money from the victim's bank account or credit card.

Hiya says there is a pattern to these utility scam calls. It says the most-used area codes to place these scam calls are 508 (Mass.); 201 (N.J.); 914 (N.Y.); 323 (Calif.); 330 (Ohio); 510 (Calif.); and 916 (Calif.).

One way to avoid the utility scam is to understand that utility companies do not call customers and threaten to immediately cut off service unless payment is made over the phone.

Consumers who receive such a call should simply hang up and call the utility company customer service department to inquire about the status of the account.

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