Austin Energy warns of scammers soliciting payments in the wake of mass power outages

Hooded scammer calling on a cellphone

Texas utility company Austin Energy has warned its customers about reports of scammers sending out payment demands to maintain electric service.

After the very unusual wintery weather in the Lone Star state caused thousands of homes to lose power, scammers began calling potential victims as the power company and demanding payment to reconnect their power or prevent disconnection.

In a tweet, Austin Energy said, “scammers are trying to take advantage of our customers in the aftermath of the winter storm. The scammers are telling customers they will be disconnected within 30-60 minutes if immediate payment is not made.”

The utility company added it hadn’t issued a service disconnection since March 2020. Austin Energy also said it would never call residential customers with immediate cut-off deadlines or ask for credit card or wire transfer information over the phone. Neither would it “demand immediate payment in person with cash, gift card, Bitcoin, or any non-traceable form of payment.”

Austin Energy said there were several ways to identify a scam call. First, the fake utility representative aggressively tells the customer their account is past due, and it will disconnect service — usually within an hour — if the customer doesn’t make a large payment. Second, the scammer instructs the customer to quickly purchase a prepaid debit card from a retail store. Lastly, a scammer asks the customer for the prepaid debit card’s number, which grants the scammer instant access to the card’s funds.

Austin Energy said if a customer receives a phone call, letter, or email threatening to interrupt service, they must hang up and dial 311 to report it.

The warning comes as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns of scammers taking advantage of climate change and other extreme weather conditions to fleece victims.

“If you get a call, thank the caller and hang up. Never call a number left in a voicemail, text, or email. Instead, if you're worried, contact the utility company directly using the number on your bill or on the company’s website. Verify if the message came from them,” said Emily Wu, Attorney at the FTC.

Rene Millman

Rene Millman is a freelance writer and broadcaster who covers cybersecurity, AI, IoT, and the cloud. He also works as a contributing analyst at GigaOm and has previously worked as an analyst for Gartner covering the infrastructure market. He has made numerous television appearances to give his views and expertise on technology trends and companies that affect and shape our lives. You can follow Rene Millman on Twitter.