With scams on the rise, United warns members
to stay alert to texts, phone calls and
even door-to-door salesmen
The occasional reports of fraudsters have become more regular this spring throughout United Cooperative Services’ territory.
Members have reported or called to check the validity of door-to-door salesmen claiming to work for or with United to install solar panels. Some salespeople have even gotten aggressive enough for members to call the police. Again and again, United has had to disavow any current relationship with third-party solar vendors on social media platforms.
Though common at any time, May also saw a large increase in reports of telephone scammers claiming to be United employees. During the conversation, the callers claim the member’s payment check had bounced and threatened to disconnect service.
“The amount of fraud reports we’ve received has increased dramatically in April and May,” said Gynger Gossett, member services manager for United. “It wasn’t limited to just one specific area in our service territory, either. We went from maybe one report a month to nine in April and five in May. Most of them tell you to pay in 30 minutes or get disconnected. Some scams have come in a text message with a link attached. We’ve also had a few automated robo-calls. None of these are methods United employs to get members to pay their bill.
“These guys need to find something to do,” she said. “They need to find a legitimate job.”
One scammer managed to collect twice on an unsuspecting member and said a crew was on the way to disconnect if payment was not received through a Zelle payment app.
Unfortunately, the scammers succeeded that time for nearly $1,000.
The Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Sentinel Network found that consumers reported losing more than $5.8 billion to fraud in 2021, which was an increase of more than 70 percent over 2020. More than 2.8 million fraud reports were logged with the commission with imposter scams landing at the top as the most commonly reported. The commission stated that $2.3 billion of the total losses came from imposter scams, nearly double of the $1.2 billion in 2020. Online shopping scams also increased with an estimated $329 million in reported losses in 2021 compared to $246 million in 2020.
The FTC also reported younger adults (ages 20 to 29) represented a larger demographic of people that reported being victims of fraud (41 percent), with a median loss of $500. Adults 70 and older (18 percent) reported a significantly higher median loss of $800 to $1,500.
“This type of questionable activity has occurred in the cooperative’s service territory over the years,” said Cameron Smallwood, CEO of United. “If any members have any questions as to the validity of someone claiming to be a United employee, they should contact their local United office immediately. Even after normal business hours, we have a 24-hour dispatch that can validate a United employee’s credentials.”
In the last few years, scammers have continued developing sophistication in their schemes, said Robert Bernhoft, the co-op’s senior vice president of information services and security. Most play on people’s emotions by inciting fear of being disconnected.
“The most common scams involve phone callers pretending to be United representatives demanding payment on an account or face disconnection, just like we continue hearing about,” he said. “The caller will have the person obtain a prepaid credit card and will call back within an hour to get the card number. With today’s technology, the scammers can make it appear in the caller ID that the call is coming from one of United’s phone numbers. Members should know that United will never call demanding payment of a bill.”
If anyone receives calls demanding payment for an account, the member shouldn’t hesitate to hang up and call United directly and speak with a representative, Bernhoft said. Staying vigilant is key to avoid victimization from a slick sales pitch or a high-pressure threat.
“Scammers will continue to improve their techniques to try and get money,” he said. “After all, this is how they make a living. So, whether it is over the phone, mail, in person, or over the internet, pay close attention to details and don’t be a victim of the scammers.”
The co-op will often disseminate this information, along with breaking local scam alerts, to members through its Facebook page, Twitter account and through Texas Co-op Power magazine. Members are encouraged to share these messages to help guard against scam activity. Any members who suspect or experience fraud, or who feel threatened with a suspected scammer should contact local authorities and United.
Red flags for scam activity
The thief becomes angry and tells the member his or her account is past due and service will be disconnected if a large payment isn’t made – usually within less than an hour.
The thief instructs the member to purchase a pre-paid debit or credit card – widely available at retail stores – then call him or her back to supposedly make a payment to United.
The scammer asks the member for the prepaid card’s receipt number and PIN number, which grants instant access to the card’s funds.
The scammer requests funds through a payment app, such as Zelle or Venmo.
While United does use robotic phone messaging from time to time, the prompts always tell members to call their local office. United does not use automated telephone devices with options to speak to a representative.
How to protect yourself
United never asks or requires a member with a delinquent account to purchase a prepaid debit card to avoid disconnection.
Never provide any additional information about yourself, especially social security or bank account information.
Members can make payments online, by phone, automatic bank draft, mail or in person.
Members with delinquent accounts receive an advance disconnection notification with the regular monthly billing—never a single notification one hour before disconnection.
If you suspect someone is trying to scam you, hang up and call the local police and United. Never dial the phone number the scammers provide.