Co-op: Consumers should be wary of phone scam

Shenandoah Valley Electricity Cooperative has warned consumers against a phone scam in which an individual or individuals claiming to be affiliated with SVEC have threatened consumers with service shutdowns if payment isn’t made over the phone.

Mike Aulgur, vice president of member service for SVEC said the concept of the scam is not new, but it’s a methodology the cooperative hasn’t encountered before.

“An iteration of this scam has been going on at least for the past two years,” Aulgur said. “We’re not immune – other electric service providers have been affected by similar scams. It’s the first time, to our knowledge, that someone has actually spoofed an 800 number in an effort to deceive and provide credit card information for the threat of disconnect, so that was a new thing from our perspective.”

Aulgur said that SVEC’s policy is not to call consumers about potential service shutoff, but rather contact the consumer in person or by mail.

Aulgur noted that one way for a consumer to discern the scammer or scammers from legitimate SVEC correspondence is to scrutinize the number itself.

“The giveaway was the fact that there is only one 800 number associated with SVEC and that’s 234-7832,”Aulgur said. “That was the tell-tale sign.”

The scam, similar versions of which have claimed area victims in the past, so far has not resulted in consumer monetary loss. Skeptical consumers have called in, however, and reported untoward phone calls to the cooperative.

“Fortunately, we have not been made aware of anybody who fell victim to the crime,” Aulgur said. “There were about 25 consumers who reached out to us.”

Aulgur noted that the pervasiveness of the scam and others like it have led to increased consumer awareness, which could explain the absence of victims with this specific scam.

“Over the past two years, the number of instances of people actually being taken advantage of has been reduced,” Aulgur said. “I think folks are much more cognizant and aware that this may be a scam in their mind and they’re not as likely to fall victim.”

Representatives for Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative said that they have reached out to the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office and made it aware of the scam. SVEC has also contacted the attorney general’s office.

“The Division of Consumer Council resides in that office and when there are scams, that office has the responsibility to investigate those occurrences,” Aulgur said.

Michael Kelly, communications director for Attorney General Mark Herring, said that this type of scam is something they are all too familiar with.

“We do work with utilities including co-ops and regulated utilities on scam and fraud issues with pretty high frequency,” Kelly said. “They’re popular subjects for impersonation. Posing as a power company threatening to shut off their electricity is something we work on pretty constantly. These things tend to be cyclical. They tend to spike.”

Capt. Wes Dellinger, of the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office said that they haven’t received any reports yet, but anybody who receives a suspicious call should reach out to local law enforcement.

Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that they have investigated similar scams with SVEC in the past, but could not confirm if an investigation had been opened in response to the most recent incidents.

Jennifer Hall, public information officer for the Winchester Police Department said they have had people call in to alert the department, but due to protocol, reports have not been filed.

“The tricky part is that we get a lot of people calling to tell us about it, but we don’t actually create a report for it unless somebody loses money or gives their personal information out so we don’t have an accurate number,” she said.

She also said that certain technologies have been bolstering the scam’s appearance of legitimacy.

“It’s coming up a lot of times as numbers from all over the country including local numbers. I’ve heard they can actually use an app to make their number seem local and that’s why a lot of people are answering because it appears as a local number.

Hall advised caution when answering unexpected phone calls.

“Be on high alert,” she said. “Never give out personal information, especially if you start to notice something isn’t right, just keep asking questions because these scammers, once they realize you’re onto them, a lot of times they’ll hang up.”

Hall also communicated that the elderly are disproportionately victimized.

“So often, seniors fall victim to scams like that,” she stated in an email Wednesday. “That’s why Winchester PD helped launch a TRIAD branch here, which is run by the S.A.L.T. Council (Seniors and Law Enforcement Together).

The group is holding a free luncheon on June 15th on elder abuse prevention. Our speaker will be talking about ways seniors can avoid becoming victims of physical, emotional, and financial abuse We are hoping to target seniors and adult children who have aging parents.”

Contact staff writer Nathan Budryk at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or nbudryk@nvdaily.com