In this age of disinformation, it often requires some investigation on your part to make sure requests, offers, information or even accusations are real.
This year has been a tough one so far. The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated the closure of businesses, schools and other public spaces. Un-employment spiked, causing hardships for countless Americans, particularly those who live paycheck to paycheck. As if this wasn’t bad enough, there are still plenty of scammers out there preying on people already hurting. And scammers are getting more sophisticated, their phone messages and email pitches adopting tactics that make them seem like the real deal.
Scams targeting electric co-op members
Because almost everyone is a customer of an electric utility, they’re easy targets for scammers. It’s such a problem that Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Corporation in Murfreesboro even has a page on its website devoted to providing members with information about scams related to the co-op. One of the most prevalent schemes is when scammers show up at members’ homes or businesses, requiring payment in cash, or they call to say a member must get a prepaid card within a short time frame to avoid having his or her power shut off. These types of incidents spike in months when energy bills are higher than normal such as the summer air-conditioning and winter heating months. And, unfortunately, as people have fallen behind on their bills because of pandemic-fueled loss of income, these scammers use that to their fear-mongering advantage.
MTEMC has a good podcast on its site detailing how such scams work and also gives tips — such as frequent typos and misspellings — on how to spot fake emails posing as official ones from the co-op.
Sequachee Valley Electric Cooperative headquartered in South Pittsburg has seen similar scams in its area once or twice a year, a recent one targeting a small business.
“The scammer claimed that the business account was in arrears and that unless the business paid immediately, the power would be cut off,” says Cathy Black, SVEC communications specialist. “Fortunately, the business owner knew our staff and called to confirm it was a scam, a benefit to being locally owned and having employees who are well known in the community.”
When it becomes aware of scams targeting its customers, SVEC posts to social media and provides press releases to local media detailing how to identify the scam and how customers can protect themselves. One tip SVEC gives is if the caller gets angry when you don’t immediately comply with his or her request, chances are high it’s a scammer.
Meriwether Lewis Electric Cooperative has seen the same type of scam targeting its members. Some report receiving calls where MLEC’s number shows up when it isn’t really the co-op calling, the scammer demanding payment within 30 minutes or power will be disconnected.
“Scammers are clever because they’ll have just enough information to make their stories believable,” says Vanessa Clayborn, manager of member services for the Centerville-based co-op.
Clayborn says some MLEC customers have also received emails or texts notifying them they’ve won an iPhone or iPad from the cooperative when that’s not true.
“After a storm in the past,” she says, “we’ve also had people offer to clear trees out of someone’s yard then charge them under the pretense they are us.”
Clayborn says open communication is key to helping MLEC members protect themselves against scammers.
“We want members to know what is going on so they can be aware and possibly protect themselves or someone else,” she says. “It is important that they know MLEC takes steps to keep their private information private. We always share alerts on social media and make all our district offices aware when we hear of a scam. We also have a tab on our website. When someone calls informing us of a scam, we always ask them to supply as much information as they can. If it is anything significant, the local office can share it with local law enforcement.”
Another energy-related scam involves solar panels.
“People are getting hit for thousands of dollars, and it’s picking up as COVID-19 is going on,” says Adam Elrod, communications coordinator for Middle Tennessee EMC.
The solar scams currently making the rounds also include less-than-truthful ads about solar panels on social media such as Facebook. You might have already seen these types of posts stating that electric utilities will pay you to put solar panels on your roof or that states are giving away free solar panels to homeowners — neither of which is true. There is also no such thing as a “solar stimulus program,” language that has been popping up in online ads.
Part of the reason for the uptick in these types of misleading ads is the fact that solar companies have typically depended on in-person sales forces, but because of the coronavirus, they have been forced to switch to digital sales strategies such as lead generators that create the ads instead of the solar companies themselves.
The chief thing to remember when in doubt about whether someone is really a representative of your local electric cooperative is to end your contact with the person and call your co-op using the number found on your bill or the official co-op website, not any numbers or websites provided by the potential scammers.
With long summer days, many Tennesseans will be taking to lakes, rivers and ponds to do some fishing. But change a couple of letters, and you get phishing, which is something you want to avoid.
Phishing is the practice of sending fraudulent emails or text messages, claiming to be someone you’re not such as a representative of a company, with the goal of obtaining personal information such as passwords, account numbers, credit card numbers and Social Security numbers from individuals. The aim is to be able to use this information to gain access to bank, email or other types of accounts.
According to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, individuals and businesses lost about $57 million to phishing schemes last year.These phishing messages can look authentic, even using a reputable company’s logo. The messages will often sound legit and perhaps scare you into taking the requested action. Some of these messages will claim that unusual activity or attempted sign-ins to your account have been detected, want you to click a button to make a payment, claim that your account has been locked or want you to verify some personal information.
Your email provider’s spam filter will catch some of the more obvious phishing attempts, but the more believable ones sometimes slip through. The Federal Trade Commission lists four ways to further protect yourself: Make sure you have security software on your computer and have it set up to update automatically, have your phone set up to update software automatically, set up your accounts to use multi-factor authentication (two or more identification methods to access) and back up your data somewhere not connected to your home network such as an external hard drive or cloud storage.
If you receive what you feel may be a phishing message, it’s easy to figure out if you don’t have an account with the company the person is claiming to be. It requires a bit more digging if you do have an account with the company. If the message has an attachment, don’t click on it. Instead, contact the company via a phone number or website you are confident is legitimate, not by any means referenced in the suspect email or text.
In an effort to cut down on phishing and to punish those who perpetrate it, the FTC suggests the following two steps:
- If you received a phishing email, forward it to the Anti-Phishing Working Group at [email protected]. If you got a phishing text message, forward it to SPAM (7726).
- Report the phishing attack to the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint.
You’ve probably received calls, often with the first part of them cut off (a big clue they’re fake) in which the caller claims some variant of you needing to appear in court or that the police are coming to arrest you. A good rule of thumb is if it sounds fake, it probably is. If the police were coming to arrest you, would they really call and give you a head’s-up so you could flee?
There are so many scams targeting Americans that it’s hard to keep track of them all and more pop up every day. If you get such a call, check with local law enforcement about the validity and to report it. Also, if the caller claims to be with an agency such as the Social Security Administration and you’re not expecting a call back in response to a call you’ve made, then hang up and call the SSA yourself to verify. The FTC has information at this link about common SSA-related scams and what they sound like: https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/blog/2018/12/what-social-security-scam-sounds.
The same goes for any calls you receive claiming to be from your bank, your credit card company, financial brokerages and other companies or agencies that could signal you’re being targeted for a scam or identity theft.
Visit https://www.fbi.gov/scams-and-safety/common-scams-and-crimes for more information on common scams and online crimes the FBI encounters.
How to spot fake news and manipulative posts
“Fake news” is a big buzz phrase these days, but that’s because people and organizations with differing agendas are doing their best to manipulate the American public by targeting their fears and prejudices — especially in a presidential election year. But no matter where you are on the political spectrum, the spreading of memes, posts and articles that are biased or full of slanted or untrue information doesn’t do anyone any good. It only serves to further divide America’s citizenry and erode what’s actually the truth, not to mention causing unhealthy spikes in everyone’s blood pressure.
So how can you tell if something you’ve seen on Facebook, Twitter or a website is true or if it’s slanted to create anger or fear in those reading it?
A good first step is to check with one of the respected, nonpartisan online fact-checking sites such as Snopes.com, FactCheck.org, PolitiFact.com or FactChecker, which is operated by The Washington Post. You will likely see people who claim that these sites aren’t to be believed, but those people may have a biased interest in casting that doubt. Perhaps they don’t like that some piece of fake or distorted news has been exposed or, for some reason, they don’t want people to have a trusted source of what’s truth and what isn’t. These fact-checking sites lay out what is and isn’t true along a continuum (true, mostly true, mostly false, false, etc.) about accusations you’ve no doubt seen someone share on Facebook.
Another good strategy to remember is to verify with multiple sources, preferably ones that have been around for a while and have years of experience under their belts. It’s easy to pose as a news organization these days without actually being one. A number of sites that make themselves look like news sites are actually propaganda for their biased backers. If you go to mediabiasfactcheck.com, you’ll find a wealth of information about the amount of bias of various sites and which way they lean. The sheer number of sources listed under each header, ranging from left-leaning to right-leaning, is evidence of how much information we are being fed on a daily basis, much of it from dubious sources. Media Bias Fact Check also provides lists of sites that are conspiracy/pseudo-science, questionable sources and satire. Those satire sites — ones that use humor, exaggeration, irony or ridicule to expose human vices or foolishness — go well beyond The Onion and are frequently mistaken for real news and shared as thus on social media.
Though it can be exhausting to question so much information that comes our way, it’s best to be cautious and vigilant. It takes less time and effort to check in advance than to try to recover from a scam, identity theft or false information that causes anger or anxiety.