When the phone rang during breakfast rush Wednesday at The Kitchen restaurant in Hamilton, Genie Chapman noticed the caller ID indicated that NorthWestern Energy was on the phone.
The caller informed her that her energy bill hadn't been paid and that a crew would be there in 30 minutes to shut off her power unless she made a second phone call to an 800 number to work out a financial solution. That 800 number included a recording that sounded very similar to something she would expect from the energy company, including instructions to press 3 if she had received a notice of disconnect.
But this wasn't Chapman's first rodeo with a telephone scam involving the power company.
Two years ago, a similar phone scam caught up a number of unsuspecting people she knew. This time around, Chapman made it a point to spread the word to help others avoid falling into the trap.
"Apparently, according to NorthWestern Energy, this time it was really focused on businesses," she said. "It's challenging doing business this time of year. Business owners don't need any extra financial issues to crop up out of nowhere."
More than 80 incidents were reported to the NorthWestern Energy Customer Care Center in Butte Wednesday morning from customers across the state.
A government office in Stillwater County received a call from a person claiming there was an emergency and that he was from the utility company. When the caller was told he had reached a government office, he hung up. The Stillwater County official reached out to NorthWestern Energy to warn about the suspected scam.
The scam calls can be very convincing.
“The scammers are telling people their electricity or gas service will be cut off in 30 seconds if payment isn’t made,” said Terri Lewis, NorthWestern Energy Customer Care Supervisor in Butte. “They are nice at first and then get upset when people ask questions. They are very convincing.”
NorthWestern reminds customers to be vigilant when it comes to anyone seeking payment information on utility bills, either in person or via the telephone or internet.
In some cases, the scammers tell potential victims to purchase prepaid debit or cash cards sold at retail outlets and to call the scammers with the relevant numbers that allow the cards to be redeemed quickly.
“We’ve also heard reports that the scammers are telling people they need to change their meter and there is a charge,” Lewis said. “That is not true.”
People should call the company directly when they receive demands for money, said NorthWestern Energy public relations specialist Jo Dee Black.
"We would never call and demand an immediate payment," she said. "We know that people have been told in the past that they need to get a prepaid debit card to make their payments and then that money is lost forever. These are people who are experts at what they are doing. They often target vulnerable people. They are very convincing and it can be scary for those receiving the call."
If you think you have received a scam collection call, it is helpful if you make note of the phone number and share it with NorthWestern customer service representatives. Having such phone numbers can help thwart future scam calls.
Customers with questions or concerns about potential scams should contact NorthWestern Energy to report concerns or questionable calls. Montana customers can contact NorthWestern at 888-467-2669.
NorthWestern does not call customers and demand immediate payment of past-due bills. The utility will provide multiple past-due notices before terminating service. If you get a cancellation notification, always verify it by dialing the customer service number on your utility bill. Don’t supply any personal information unless you are sure you are indeed working with the utility. NorthWestern never asks customers to use a prepaid debit card for payment.