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The folks at NorthWestern Energy say they don’t want their customers getting spoofed this holiday season.

Josh Peck, creative service specialist for NorthWestern, and Customer Care Supervisor Terri Lewis held an information session Wednesday at the company’s call center on Harrison Avenue in Butte to warn the public about utility scams.

One of the most common types of utility scams is a “disconnection deception” in which an impostor poses as a NorthWestern energy official and calls his or her target, demanding payment for an overdue bill and stating that the customer’s power or gas will be turned off if the bill isn’t paid. Often the scammers ask victims to send cash or the numbers from a pre-paid debit card.

“We see quite a few scams come through the office,” Peck said. “We get a lot of calls on a weekly basis.”

To fight back, NorthWestern has recently partnered with New York-based Somos, a company that manages databases for the telecommunication industry. The company has been helping NorthWestern identify and shut down numbers used by scammers posing as utility officials.

If you think you’re too smart to be had by a scammer, think again.

“It can happen to anyone,” said Peck, noting one recent case in which a business owner spent several weeks abroad and had someone manage the expenses of her business while she was away. In addition to posting photos of her time abroad on social media, the business owner also vented publicly about how bills went unpaid while she was away. But little did she know, Peck said, that these social media posts made her a target for scammers, who later called her with a seemingly legitimate claim that she was over do on her energy bill.

Peck and Lewis said that scammers are becoming increasingly sophisticated these days, sometimes disguising their numbers as NorthWestern customer service lines using “spoofing” websites and searching social media to find individuals who might be good candidates for scamming, a practice known as “social engineering,” Peck said.

“They look ahead,” said Peck. “They check out your Facebook profiles. They know things about you. They know you’ve just gotten back from a trip, they know what you’re up to and they know how to use that.”

Peck and Lewis added that scammers have even gone as far as recording automated NorthWestern greetings to make their calls look legitimate.

But customers can look out for red flags in order to avoid being scammed.

Lewis said one red flag is aggressive or rude behavior from the caller, who may demand immediate payment for an overdue bill and tell their victims they’ll turn off their power if the money isn’t sent right away. In addition, scammers often try to call during stressful times, such as during the holidays or, in the case of a restaurant owner, just before lunchtime when the business is likely to be busy. The goal, Peck and Lewis said, is to fluster the potential victim and cause them to let their guard down.

Peck and Lewis said scammer behavior is different from what one should expect from a NorthWestern energy employee.

“We’re not threatening at all,” said Lewis. “We send ample (overdue) notices in the mail. We make a last call attempt (before disconnection).”

Similarly, the two said NorthWestern never asks customers to use prepaid debit cards and only accepts cash payments in person.

Peck and Lewis said that if you suspect a caller might be a scammer, hang up and call the customer-service number on your energy bill and don’t supply any personal information over the phone unless you are sure you are indeed working with the utility.

“People work hard for their money,” said Lewis, noting that the company doesn’t like seeing its customers scammed.

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for The Montana Standard.

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