New phone scam involves fake government agency, solar panel pitch

Composite image, St. George News

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Public Service Commission has received reports of a phony telemarketing scheme in which callers pretend to be from a fake state government agency, Francine A. Giani, executive director of the Utah Department of Commerce, announced Tuesday.

According to the reports, Utah citizens are contacted by the “Utah Public Utilities Commission” with a solar energy sales pitch. Consumers are told there is a deadline with the government, and they must act right away to receive special pricing on solar energy panels. However, the Utah Public Utilities Commission is a nonexistent entity.

Scott Brown, who recently retired from Questar Gas, first brought the issue to the attention of the Public Service Commission. However, this isn’t the first time Brown has dealt with this type of issue.

“I have a fair amount of expertise in this,” Brown said. “I had been Questar Gas’ general counsel and vice president of operations.”

A number of years ago, Brown said, scammers were calling people pretending to be representatives of Questar and saying they wanted to come into people’s homes and do work on their furnaces. Brown had to get involved and sue companies and file for injunctions because they were scamming people and taking their money, he said.

“It was particularly irksome and painful,” he said, “because a lot of them were older people who were being frightened by the callers … older people who were on fixed incomes, little old ladies who were scared to death that they needed to have something done to their house or it would explode or burn down.”

So when Brown received a call on his cell phone two days in a row from an automated system, he said he knew the best thing to do was contact the Public Service Commission.

“The person called up and said ‘Hello, I’m calling you on behalf of the Public Utilities Commission and I’m here to tell you about some conservation programs for electricity and water conservation that you can procure from us,'” Brown said. “They did mention solar, if you were interested in solar, hit 1 on your phone. After I heard that, I said, ‘Oh crap, it’s starting over.'”

After Brown brought this to the commission’s attention, he said they did some investigating and discovered other people who had received similar calls.

A reporter with St. George News was able to procure a recording of one of the calls. From the recording:

If you’ve looked into solar … there are new state and local programs that will help cover the cost and, in some cases, pay for the entire project. Take advantage of these programs before they run out by pressing 1.

Brown said that while he isn’t familiar with all the solar programs and which companies are legitimate, this type of pitch should make people wary.

“I know that there are people who are legitimate out here who are doing it (solar installations),” he said, “but anything that sounds too good to be true – ‘yes, we’re going to put all of these in for free for you’ – you know you’re going to have to pay something that’s worse than if you bought them.”

While there is no actual Utah Public Utilities Commission in the state, commissioners with the Utah Public Service Commission are concerned citizens may confuse this scam with the real government agency and take the bait.

The Utah Public Service Commission does not make telemarketing calls to the public and does not authorize anyone to do so on its behalf,” Thad LeVar, chair of the Utah Public Service Commission, said. “Anyone who claims otherwise is simply lying.”

Imposter scams are not new to the Division of Consumer Protection, who reminds the public that scams such as this solar energy pitch use common elements like government-sounding names to lure the public into believing it’s true. Besides this new scam, other recent phony calls have used the IRS and other government entities to snare victims.

“Imposter scams prey on your trusting nature with convincing names and language to confuse you into thinking it’s the real deal,” Giani said. “Hang up the phone and call the real agency to verify before acting first.”

Top 5 ways to beat a government imposter scam

1. Don’t wire money.

Scammers often pressure people into wiring money or strongly suggest that people put money on a prepaid debit card and send it to them. Why? It’s like sending cash; once it’s gone, you can’t trace it or get it back. Never deposit a “winnings” check and wire money back, either. The check is a fake, no matter how good it looks, and you will owe the bank any money you withdraw.

Also, don’t share your account information or send a check or money order using an overnight delivery or courier service. Con artists recommend these services so they can get your money before you realize you’ve been cheated.

2. Don’t pay for a prize.

If you enter and win a legitimate sweepstakes, you don’t have to pay insurance, taxes or shipping charges to collect your prize. If you have to pay, it’s not a prize. And companies, including Lloyd’s of London, don’t insure delivery of sweepstakes winnings.

If you didn’t enter a sweepstakes or lottery, then you can’t have won. Additionally, remember that it’s illegal to play a foreign lottery through the mail or over the phone.

3. Don’t give the caller your financial or other personal information.

Never give out or confirm financial or other sensitive information, including your bank account, credit card or Social Security number, unless you know who you’re dealing with. Scam artists, like fake debt collectors, can use your information to commit identity theft, such as charging your existing credit cards; opening new credit card, checking or savings accounts; writing fraudulent checks; or taking out loans in your name.

If you get a call about a debt that may be legitimate but you think the collector may not be, contact the company you owe money to directly about the calls.

4. Don’t trust a name or number.

Con artists use official-sounding names to make you trust them. It’s illegal for any promoter to lie about an affiliation with, or an endorsement by, a government agency or any other well-known organization. No matter how convincing their story — or their stationery — they’re lying.

No legitimate government official will ask you to send money to collect a prize, and they won’t call to collect your debt. To make their call seem legitimate, scammers also use internet technology to disguise their area code. So even though it may look like they’re calling from Washington, D.C., they could be calling from anywhere in the world.

5. Put your number on the National Do Not Call Registry.

This won’t stop scammers from calling, but it should make you skeptical of calls you get from out of the blue. Most legitimate sales people generally honor the Do Not Call list. Scammers ignore it. Putting your number on the list helps to “screen” your calls for legitimacy and reduce the number of legitimate telemarketing calls you get. Register your phone number here.

If you receive a suspicious call, report the scam to the Federal Trade Commission. If you get a call from a government imposter, file a complaint at ftc.gov/complaint. Be sure to include:

  • Date and time of the call.
  • Name of the government agency the imposter used.
  • What they tell you, including the amount of money and the payment method they ask for.
  • Phone number of the caller. Although scammers may use technology to create a fake number or spoof a real one, law enforcement agents may be able to track that number to identify the caller.
  • Any other details from the call.

For more information or to file a complaint, go to the Utah Division of Consumer Protection website.

St. George News reporter Julie Applegate contributed to this report.

Email: pdail@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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