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Utility scammers now seeking payment via cryptocurrency, and it's working

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Posted at 6:00 AM, Jun 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-22 09:44:58-04

BALTIMORE — Utility scammers are trying new tactics, and they’re working.

Since January, BGE has received more than 3,200 scam complaints with a reported loss of nearly $59,000. This is a significant increase compared to last year’s 2,600 scam complaints and $38,000 lost to utility scammers.

“It’s the same scam, it’s just evolved to a different technique,” said Todd Powell, manager of security for BGE.

Scammers are using the same script but have changed how they’re seeking payment.

“Some of our customers are reporting that they’ll get a call on their cellphone followed by a text with a QR code asking them to go make a payment. Usually, it’s a Bitcoin machine at a designated location that’s already mapped out somewhere near where they live,” said Powell.

Two groups have emerged as major targets — customers with delinquent bills and small businesses who typically have larger bills and depend on energy to stay open.

Natasha Clendenin-Bey, a new store owner, fits into both.

“I was working in my store, I had a line of customers and the store phone rang,” said Clendenin-Bey. “So I answered the phone, and I’m ringing up customers and they said it was BGE calling about my bill not being paid.”

Clendenin-Bey was still in the process of transferring the account and knew the bill hadn’t been paid.

“He says your bill is really behind and we need you to get it caught up,” Clendenin-Bey said.

She asked for online access to the account to pay it there.

“He said, ‘No, it’s too far behind and it’ll be cut off today,’” said Clenendin-Bey. “I’m panicking because I know I have afternoon appointments and I didn’t want to have to shut the store down because we didn’t have any electricity.”

So she did as she was told and headed to a COINME location. She then sent $1,000 via Bitcoin.

“I’m just distraught. I’m trying to get back to the store before my appointment comes, I’m like whatever,” said Clendenin-Bey.

As she rushed back to her business, her husband called. She walked him through what happened, and then it hit her. She realized she’d been scammed.

“All the blood just released from my body and there was nothing. And I was like why, oh my gosh, and it was at that moment I ran the whole thing back through my head and I was like how could I have not seen this coming,” said Clenendin-Bey.

Chimaobi Chijioke, vice president of customer operations for BGE, hears this far too often.

“We wouldn’t call you and ask you to make a payment right away, we’re never going to do that,” said Chijioke.

He added that scammers are using this time of financial uncertainty to try and deceive customers.

“When in doubt, hang up and call 1-800-685-0123,” said Chijioke.

Customers can also check their account balance on BGE’s website, through the mobile app, or by calling 1-833-209-5245.

Powell said there have been some instances where they’ve managed to recover money sent to scammers, particularly with cryptocurrency, but that’s if the customer notifies BGE right away.

But for most, once the money’s sent, it’s unlikely they’ll get it back.

“It’s a lot. You can’t get it back,” said Clenendin-Bey. “This was definitely an expensive lesson for me to learn.”

Clenendin-Bey hasn’t been able to recover that sum, but BGE has spaced out her payments to make it a little more manageable.

If you’re struggling to pay your bill, call BGE to speak with someone about your options.

Millions of dollars in energy assistance
The Maryland Public Service Commission recently announced that the state is contributing $83 million to cover past-due utility bills.

Around $276 million is currently owed by utility customers.

The state funding is required by the RELIEF (Recovery for the Economy, Livelihoods, Industries, Entrepreneurs, and Families) Act passed by the Maryland General Assembly earlier this year and signed into law by Governor Larry Hogan.

Only residential customer accounts with arrearages that accumulated before June 30, 2021 are eligible to have the funding applied.

Here’s the order in which the funds will be applied to customers:

  • Category 1: Customers who have received energy assistance from the state’s Office of Home Energy Programs within the last four years
  • Category 2: Customers who have special medical needs certificates on file with their utility
  • Category 3: Customers with the oldest arrearages

It is expected that the $83 million will eliminate customer debt in categories 1 and 2.

Funds will appear as bill credits in the coming months. Utilities will inform customers of the application process.