Utility Scams Using ‘Phone Spoofing’ Strike Across Canada

9 April 2015

The technology used by scammers to defraud their victims is constantly advancing. According to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre, there have been a rash of incidents throughout the past six months involving “phone spoofing”, where fraudsters use easily available apps that allow their phones to show up as a local number on the victim’s call display. This makes the victim more likely to answer the call than if it were coming from an area code they were unfamiliar with. Once the victim picks up, the scammer takes the opportunity to pretend that they’ve won a flight or that their relative is in danger, or to run any number of other scams to attempt to collect personal information from them.

Two scams involving utility companies and phone spoofing have recently been reported in Canada. In each case, scammers used phone spoofing technology to impersonate a utility company in order to defraud customers.

The first scam has been taking place repeatedly since September in British Columbia. Residents have reported receiving calls from a 1-800 number that comes up as “B.C. Hydro” on their phone displays. The caller claims to be from the utility company and threatens to disconnect the victim’s power unless they provide immediate payment. In certain cases, the scammers have suggested that the victims purchase cash gift cards in order to pay off their supposed debts right away.

The real B.C. Hydro has released a statement warning its customers about the scam, reminding them that they never demand payment over the phone, instead using mail notices and automated dialers to remind customers of late payments. The company also does not accept payment from cash gift cards.

Meanwhile, in Saskatchewan, another phone scam has been proliferating using the name of local energy company SaskEnergy. Similarly, the victims’ call displays shows the calls as coming from SaskEnergy or a legitimate SaskEnergy phone number, and the caller demands immediate payment, threatening to cut off natural gas service unless it is received.

SaskEnergy spokeswoman Casey MacLeod told the Regina Leader-Post that the utility company became aware of the scam when savvy customers in Regina and Saskatoon began to call to ask about the status of their accounts. She is insistent that the company never makes any calls that resemble those received by these customers.

“We will absolutely never ask for payment information over the phone,” she told the Leader-Post. “Certainly, if someone is asking for payment, that’s not us — it’s definitely not us!”

Nevertheless, scammers have used the company’s name several times to take advantage of its customers. In 2012, the SaskEnergy name was used in a scam where the callers offered to ship customers a device that would cut their energy costs if they supplied their credit card numbers. Of course, no devices were ever shipped, and the numbers were used for credit card fraud.

Both of the utility companies are urging customers who get suspicious calls from what seems to be their phone number to hang up and call the company back on their direct phone line to verify any statements made about their accounts. A good way to do this is to ask for the caller’s name, then check with someone else at the company to be sure a person by that name actually works there.

Afterwards, recipients of fraudulent phone calls should report their experiences to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Call Centre, and to their local police department. It’s especially important to report the incident to police immediately if you have actually given out your financial information.

If you’ve been victimized by a phone scam, your personal information might still be circulating among criminals. Sign up for a credit monitoring service to gain some peace of mind.