Don’t fall for it! Pepco wouldn’t call and demand money an hour before cutting off your power. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
Columnist

John Rossi knows why he almost fell for the scam: His brain had been tenderized by recent events. He’d been away from home for three weeks on a trip. He’d returned to a burst pipe. And he’d just switched from mailing in a check for his electric bill to paying online. When his Caller ID lit up with a call from “Pepco,” he was primed to believe some bad news.

“I pick up the phone and I hear the guy saying, ‘I hate to have to tell you this. I’m a lineman out here today and I have a disconnect order for your house,’” said John, who lives in Silver Spring, Md. “I thought, ‘Oh crap, something’s gone wrong with the system.’”

The lineman assured John that it would be a few hours before he reached his house. In the meantime, here was a number John could call to straighten things out. When John called, he got a “Pepco” recording that told him to press 1 for Maryland customers, 2 for customers in the District.

A man came on the line and told John that he owed $395. Pay it now or the power would be turned off. That didn’t sound right to John, who said his regular electric bill runs about $50 a month.

“I said, ‘I’m not going to send you money,’” John said. “The guy hung up on me.”

And he hung up when John called back. At that point, John got suspicious. He dug out a Pepco bill and called the number on it.

“I didn’t even get to the second sentence with the customer service representative when he said, ‘Stop. You’ve been hoodwinked. These guys are con artists. It’s not us.’”

Fortunately, John never got to the point where he was asked to provide a credit card number or directed to purchase a prepaid debit card to settle his “bill.” That’s likely what would have happened next.

“This is a very common scam,” said Sgt. Sunyoung Kim of the Montgomery County oolice. “Our department has seen a little uptick in incidents being reported.”

Utilities across North America have seen a surge in such scams, said Pepco’s Christina Harper.

“They’re sophisticated,” Christina said. “We are seeing scammers manipulate Caller ID and replicate Pepco’s upfront messages and on-hold recordings.”

In November, Pepco joined 100 other utilities across North America in an effort to warn consumers and urge vigilance.

Christina said the utility would never ask a customer to provide a Social Security number, credit card information or bank account details unless the customer initiated the call on their own.

And as far as threatening to cut off your power in the next hour, “That is not something we would do,” she said. “We have an extensive process before we disconnect.”

It’s one that involves multiple contacts — including in writing — and can take almost 60 days.

Whether it’s the electric company, the gas company, the water company or the IRS, if you have any doubts, you should call the organization itself. For Pepco, that’s 202-833-7500. (They’re also interested in hearing from you if you’ve been the target of a scam attempt.)

A few other things to keep in mind: Always ask to see a company photo ID before allowing any utility worker into your home or business. And never make a payment for services to anyone coming to your door.

Remember: Only you can prevent scammers.

Words on the wire

More telegram stories, after last week’s columns on the subject: Lela Lienhard Curtis’s father was aboard the USS Shaw in Pearl Harbor on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. In the aftermath of the Japanese attack, it was a few days before he was able to get a telegram out. When he finally did, he cut his message to the barest bones: “Not a scratch.”

Wrote Lela, of Alexandria, Va.: “Pictures of the explosion of the Shaw had already hit the newspapers back home. Until receipt of the telegram, his parents had no idea whether he had survived or not. He went on to spend the next 33 years in the Navy and retire as a Captain.”

Not long after moving to the D.C. area in 1974, David Summers befriended a woman named Wahneta Rodeheaver. “She moved here from West Virginia as a child when her father got a veteran’s job as a guard after he served with General Custer,” wrote David, who lives in Arlington, Va., now.

Ms. Rodeheaver — “Rody” to her friends — worked nights at the Western Union office. One night a telegram came in from West Virginia that read “Who’s Jesse and where did he take Grandpa?”

Since the message had to do with her home state of West Virginia, Rody investigated. She learned the message had been sent in response to an earlier telegram that read “Jesse came and took Grandpa away.”

Wrote David: “It was Western Union’s mistake. The senders sought to send a message that began with the word ‘Jesus.’”

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.