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Monday, July 9, 2012

Utility Bill Scam

With a complex system of federal assistance programs (e.g., "Cash for Clunkers" in 2009), it can be hard for average citizens to tell which are real and which are not.  Social media may spread misinformation that increases the confusion.  MSNBC reports on a painful form of identity theft that is taking advantage of the heat wave:
The criminals have been marching across the country, making their way from state to state, persuading victims that a special federal government assistance program -- sometimes described as a bailout authorized by President Barack Obama's administration -- is available to pay their utility bills. Victims are given bank account and routing numbers to use when paying their bills online, but only after they "register" by surrendering their Social Security numbers and other personal information.
There is no such utility payment assistance program. But electricity users seem to be falling for the ruse everywhere, making it in one of the more successful scams in recent times. Last week, 2,000 people were tricked in Tampa the local utility company, TECO Energy Inc., told There were more victims in North Carolina, Pennsylvania,Indiana, and across New England. Utility firms in Utah and Californiareported similar scam epidemics earlier this year. And at least 10,000 people fell for the scam in New Jersey in recent weeks, Public Service Electric & Gas told
 The continued spread of the “Obama utility bill scam,” as some have dubbed it, means it’s likely coming to a neighborhood near you. Scammers find victims through all the usual digital channels --emails, bogus tweets, even Facebook messages. But in an unusual twist, the scam also has a real-world element. Agents for the criminals are going block by block, knocking on doors and handing out leaflets, encouraging people to pay their bills with the bogus account information.

Facebook has hastened the spread of the scam, said Bonnie Sheppard, spokeswoman from PSE&G in New Jersey, as victims passon their “success stories.”
"Once it morphed into the social media thing, it just kept getting passed on from friend to friend to friend," she said.