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Many Marylanders are behind on their utility bills. That could also put them at risk for scams.

In one ruse, a robocaller asks utility customers to press 1 to hear about their bill. Then, a live person demands payment or personal information.

In another common scam, the caller threatens to shut off someone’s power if they don’t consent to installing a new meter — then demands they pay using Cashapp or a Green Dot card, which can be used for immediate fund transfers.

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Utility-related scams are nothing new. But now that Maryland’s moratorium on service terminations has ended, utility companies, consumer advocates and the state’s Public Service Commission are issuing fresh warnings to be on the lookout.

“We may see additional upticks in scammers trying to take advantage of financial distress,” said Paula Carmody, head of the Maryland Office of People’s Counsel, which represents residential utility customers. “There is a significant increase in the number of people who have fallen behind on their bills, and they are now subject to service shut-offs.”

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Already, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers have reported a huge increase in scam attempts in recent months compared with this time last year.

For instance, BGE customers reported 2,057 scam attempts in September, compared with 294 last September.

In October, they reported 1,952 attempts to the company, compared with 106 last October.

Most of these attempts are not successful. Even so, BGE customers have reported losing $170,000 to scams so far this year.

A statewide moratorium on shut-offs was issued in March in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Starting Nov. 15, utilities were allowed to resume service terminations.

During the pandemic, Maryland customers have racked up utility debt now totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.

BGE has been “proactively” working to arrange payment plans with customers who have fallen behind on their bills, said Chimaobi Chijioke, the company’s director of customer care.

“We do anticipate there is going to be an increase in scammers trying to also reach out to them,” he said.

Most scams are by phone, though they can also come as emails, texts or someone knocking on your door.

Chijioke urged customers to be aware of common warning signs.

“We would never ask for immediate payment or personal information,” like a driver’s license number, Chijioke said. “So that’s always a red flag.”

Scammers are able to use “caller ID spoofing” to make it appear they are really calling from BGE, he added.

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“With technology you can pretty much do anything,” Chijioke said.

Anytime a customer is suspicious, they should contact their utility immediately, officials said.

Utility companies across the country have worked in recent years to increase awareness of scams.

Last fall, BGE launched “a strategic public awareness campaign” and saw a 50% drop between October 2019 and February 2020 in the reports of scams and how much money customers had lost, spokeswoman Tasha Jamerson said.

But at the end of March, the company saw a substantial increase in those numbers, she said.

Utility scams are part of a category of cons known as “impostor scams” — when someone pretends to be someone else — that are generally on the rise during the pandemic, said Angie Barnett, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Greater Maryland. For instance, the BBB had increased reports this year of scammers posing as the IRS.

“Scammers know how to prey on the weakest moments and the most vulnerable citizens,” she said.

Individuals aren’t the only ones utility scammers go after — they also target small businesses, she said.

“They create a sense of urgency and threat,” Barnett said. “People respond emotionally.”

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