Scams abound amid coronavirus

An empty wallet

Electricity has become even more vital since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with many still working and spending a majority of their time at home.

Scammers have taken notice and have been targeting people at an alarming rate. Reports of fraud to PECO, the Philadelphia region’s largest electricity provider, have tripled compared to last year.

Lauren Feldhake, the company’s vice president of customer operations, recalled one incident where a man purchased a $500 prepaid credit card to pay a scammer who was threatening to shut off his electricity.

“It’s very challenging for people who already have tight financial situations to begin with,” she told Metro. “It is really a bad story when people are taking advantage of our customers that way.”

Cons have proliferated nationwide since the beginning of the epidemic. Complaints about cyber-attacks have increased 400%, according to the FBI, and people have reported losing $153 million in virus-related scams, the Federal Trade Commission reports.

State officials announced a partnership Thursday in an attempt to weed out suspicious applications to a federal pandemic unemployment assistance program.

Last week, authorities noticed a spike in submissions, from an average of about 5,000 applications a day to as many as 20,000, some of which were filed outside Pennsylvania.

Scammers have been stealing people’s identities and using their personal information to file for unemployment benefits, officials said.

Last month, the state Department of Human Services warned about a scheme in which fraudsters send text messages to people telling them they have been selected to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps.

Officials emphasized that state and federal employees do not offer public assistance through text message.

Online scammers, rather than hacking, often reach out to potential victims and portray themselves as a trusted source. The tactic is known as “phishing” and occurs primarily over email.

“Phishing is by far the most common tactic used by cyber criminals,” said Erik Avakian, Gov. Tom Wolf’s chief information security officer, in a statement. “The easiest way for bad actors to commit their crimes is by tricking people into handing over their information or opening links to malicious software.”

The state encourages people to use strong passwords; be wary of opening suspicious emails and attachments; and to not transmit personal information while using public WiFi.

Feldhake said PECO haw heard reports of fraudsters going door-to-door, impersonating electrical workers, or calling customers over the phone, sometimes spoofing a number so it looks like a legitimate call.

Often, they ask for account information. Feldhake said scammers try to create a sense of urgency and threaten to cut off service, even though PECO has adopted a shutdown moratorium due to the pandemic.

“There should never be a sense of urgency in making a payment,” she said.

PECO doesn’t send its workers door-to-door, either. Customers are always alerted prior to a visit, she said.

Feldhake said residents should call the company’s 24/7 customer service line, 1-800-494-4000, if they think a call could be fake. Signing up for an online account also helps people see exactly what’s going on with their bill, she added.

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