Two area utilities are warning their customers to beware of scam artists. Cons in which callers demand payment for past-due bills under the threat of shutting off service have apparently become an epidemic.

The Vineland Municipal Utilities Authority and South Jersey Gas have both issued warnings about the phony calls, which have fooled some customers and have cost them substantial amounts of money.

Warnings have also been issued by utilities, freeholder boards and county divisions of consumer affairs throughout New Jersey. Utilities as far away as Oklahoma and Orlando, Fla., have seen the same scam.

Here's how it works: A caller claims to be from your utility and tells you that service will be immediately cut off if you don't pay up an overdue bill right now. The only way to pay is to provide your credit card or bank account information over the phone. In a variation, the caller may claim the only way to pay the bill is with a Green Dot Money Pak, a prepaid debit card sold at convenience stores.

Police say many victims of these rip-offs are elderly or speak English as a second language.

This is just the latest twist on an old con. Unfortunately, in our hyperconnected world, you are connected with everyone, from your Aunt Sally to the sort of people who snatch purses for a living. Through your phone or your laptop, they can reach into your home.

Legitimate businesses don't ask you to pay your bills immediately by giving them credit card or banking numbers over the phone or over the Internet. Local utilities accept payment at their offices, through the mail or with a credit card at their websites. And utilities always issue written notices before they disconnect service due to non-payment.

In fact, the only time you should ever give credit card information is when you initiate the contact and, online, when you're on a secure site.

Authorities say that if you receive such a call, you should report it to your local police department. Make a note of the caller's number if you can. Do not give out information, and do not verify any account numbers the caller may have.

You can also report it to New Jersey's Consumer Fraud Hotline at 800-242-5846.

We would love to suggest that there is a legislative fix for this problem, a bill that could eliminate the possibility of being ripped off by criminals through your phone. And we'd certainly support such an idea, if anybody has one.

But, frankly, we're not sure there's a better remedy for this than the old adage, "Buyer, beware."


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