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Beware of Bill Payment Scam

Beware of Bill Payment Scam

As electric bills rise because of summer temperatures, a handful of consumer-members at electric cooperatives have fallen prey to a coast-to-coast telemarketing scam offering bogus help with energy bills.

Sam Houston Electric Cooperative is warning members about a scam in which residents are told that President Obama will help pay energy bills under a special federal program if they provide personal information, such as a bank routing number or their Social Security number.

“We urge our members to guard their personal accounting and banking information and never share this information with family, friends or strangers,” said a message on the website of Mid-Carolina Electric Cooperative.

Six members at the Lexington, S.C., co-op were bilked, and a few even had power cut off as a result, said Eddie Richardson, vice president for member services. In one instance, the co-op blocked a bank routing number given to a consumer who had provided a Social Security number.

“They were thinking their bill was paid without checking with us to be sure,” said Richardson, who notified the state’s department of consumer affairs about the incidents. “Others called us, saying they didn’t get credit on their accounts.”

Better Business Bureaus in several states also have issued consumer warnings, as well as attorneys general in Mississippi, North Carolina and Arizona.

“We have taken hundreds of calls at this point, probably topping 1,000, from Mississippi residents concerning this scam,” said Jan Schaefer, a spokeswoman at the state’s attorney general office.

It’s unknown how many have lost money, and the cases are under investigation, said Schaefer. Many of those callers have indicated that they turned over personal identifying information after talking to a person they believed was offering them help paying their bills.

“We are urging members to be extra cautious of who they release personal information to,” Ricky Harrell, Sam Houston Electric Cooperative member services manager, said. “Contact us immediately if you receive a suspicious phone call about your electric bill requesting information that we should already have on file.”