OAKLAND, Calif. - Scammers are threatening to disconnect Pacific Gas & Electric customers in a matter of minutes, and demanding payment for SmartMeter deposits through bogus calls and fraudulent emails.
PG&E said it has received dozens of reports of the emerging SmartMeter scam, aimed at robbing customers of hundreds, even thousands of dollars.
Utility impostors are impersonating 800 numbers or those belonging to PG&E in an attempt to defraud customers at an alarming rate.
"I have a whole roster on my phone and each time it said PG&E," said customer Denise Mapes of Oakland. "Something wasn’t quite right and so then I hung up and he called back and said, ‘well you have to pay to get your SmartMeter swapped out.’ I just thought it was really unusual."
Several customers tell KTVU they received calls telling them their power would be turned off in 10-20 minutes if a deposit was not immediately made.
The scammers are also sending out what looks like legitimate emails with PG&E logos from an email address that claims to be PG&E Billing Department.
The letters, obtained by KTVU, demand a $498 deposit for a new SmartMeter, promising a refund in two billing cycles.
"I was kind of like – what?" said customer Carolyn Brown of American Canyon. "And he goes on and says, ‘well, you didn’t get the email?’"
PG&E said it will never request payment over the phone and that scammers are targeting unsuspecting victims who may be distracted, stressed or vulnerable.
So far this year, the utility has received more than 7,200 reports of scams by customers, a large increase from 11,000 for the entire year in 2021.
"I have a going to be 88-year-old mom and I just see her getting that call and I want her to be educated," said Matt Foley with PG&E cybersecurity. "The biggest challenge is identifying the scammers."
With more than 16 million customers, Foley said the scammers know there are opportunities to prey on those in a panic or fearful of losing power.
PG&E said In 2021, customers lost more than $600,000 to scammers. Many of those fraudsters claiming to be from PG&E have their calls traced overseas, making it difficult the scammers difficult to identify and arrest.
"It is a business for them," Foley said. "They have people looking at what we’re doing and counteracting that."
While scammers can be convincing, PG&E said it’s best to just hang up. Also, the utility will never ask for money over the phone.
Several potential victims, includes Mapes, said she was asked to transfer money immediately to avoid an interruption for service using Zelle.
"It just got really weird," she said. "I kept hanging up on him. I said, ‘I’m not talking to you anymore. You turn off my power, you turn off my power. It’s almost like, I dare you.’"
Common red flag signs of a scam include a threat to disconnect, a refund or rebate, a request for immediate payment or using a prepaid money card.
PG&E said it does not take any payments through Zelle, Bitcoin, kiosks, Moneypak cards or QR codes.
But Foley said it’s the exact reason why scammers’ requested payments are often just under $500 – the limit for money cards or initial money transfers.
"PG&E will never ask for money over the phone," he said. "End the call, end the scam."
The utility said customers with delinquent accounts receive an advanced disconnection notification by mail, and included in a monthly bill.
To report a scam, call PG&E at 1-833-500-SCAM or log into your pge.com account to confirm details.
"PG&E, they don’t call you number one," Brown said. "And they’re definitely not going to give you a refund for anything."