Scam claims government will help pay utility bill

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The bigger the lie, the bigger the heist.

That's apparently what the crooks behind one of the most audacious scams were thinking when they decided to use President Barack Obama's name in their efforts to victimize thousands of electric customers in Western Pennsylvania and elsewhere throughout the country.

They claim the president will help pay utility bills for residential customers through a special federal program. It's a ruse to obtain personal information such as Social Security numbers that they use to steal victims' identities.

FirstEnergy Corp., the parent company of Pennelec, Penn Power, West Penn Power and seven other electric distribution companies, said the scam has been reported in numerous states.

After the crooks obtain the victims' personal information, FirstEnergy said, scammers give them a phony bank routing number to pay their bills. Of course, no government funds are applied to their accounts and the full balance of their bills remains due.

FirstEnergy said the crooks are conning victims by going door to door, posting fliers or contacting them by phone, email, text-message and other social media.

To combat the crooks, FirstEnergy and its distribution companies strongly advise customers to pay their bills only by methods authorized by their electric companies.

It also wants customers to know that the company's employees don't ask for sensitive information such as Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, etc.

It warned customers not to allow people claiming to be utility employees into their homes without checking for proper identification. It said its employees always carry photo identification and that many of its field workers wear uniforms and drive clearly marked company vehicles.

The company also said its employees typically visit a home only in response to a service call. "If no one scheduled an appointment, do not allow the person through the door," the firm's representatives said.

To verify the authenticity of anyone claiming to be a FirstEnergy employee at your front door, on the phone, via email or social media, call the company's toll-free numbers between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Pennelec, 1-800-545-7741; Penn Power, 1-800-720-3600; and West Penn Power, 1-800-686-0021.

FirstEnergy said it encourages its customers "to be vigilant at all times and to notify local police if they believe they are a victim of this fraudulent scheme."

Bottom Line: If in doubt about this scam or any other dubious-sounding "offer," call the company's customer service number listed on your bill. And warn family members or friends who may be susceptible to such schemes.

Summer job, summer rob

Becoming a "mystery shopper" may appear to be an enticing employment opportunity, especially to students still scrambling to find a summer job.

And when that offer comes with a check to purchase items at a retailer and "pay" the shoppers for their time, it sounds like a fun and easy way to make money.

"Not so fast," said Kim Garner, senior vice president of global security and investigations for MoneyGram, a major global money transfer company.

"With the promise of fast money, it's no mystery why a consumer might be lured into a fraudulent mystery shopper scheme," she said, "but that easy money could turn into a difficult financial lesson."

Ms. Garner said the scheme frequently begins when a consumer responds to an ad or email. Victims receive a sizable check and are instructed to cash it, use a small amount to buy various items, evaluate their shopping experience, deduct a portion for their wages and wire the remainder of the money to the sender.

"After they've sent the money, [the victims] discover the original check was fraudulent, and they've lost the money they wired to the scammer," Ms. Garner said.

Her advice:

• Read the fine print -- Read the entire job description and look for hints, such as the lack of a physical address or phone number, that the job may not be with a reputable employer.

• Verify before you apply -- Use the Internet to research the company thoroughly, including customer and employee feedback about its business. Check with the Better Business Bureau, www.bbb.org, for information about the company.

• Never wire as a hire -- A legitimate mystery shopper job never requires an employee to cash a check and return a portion of the funds through a money transfer service.

• Don't give to receive -- Any work-at-home job that requires applicants to pay for training materials or certification "is a common sign of a potential scam," Ms. Garner said. "Ignore any job offers that require an applicant to send money to an employer upfront."

Information: www.moneygram-preventfraud.com; 1-800-666-3947.

neigh_west - neigh_north - larrywalsh

Lawrence Walsh can be reached at pyp@post-gazette.com and 412-263-1895. Please include your name and your day, evening and/or cell phone number(s). Due to volume, he cannot respond to every email and phone call.


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