Office of the Ohio Consumers' Counsel

Protecting Consumers from Unwanted Telemarketing and Scams

Unwanted telemarketing calls can be a nuisance—and sometimes even fraud--to consumers.

The Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel (OCC) offers a fact sheet, “Do Not Call: National and State Protection for Ohioans” to inform residential telephone customers of protections against unwanted telemarketing.

OCC’s website contains additional materials instructing consumers how to avoid being charged for services or enrolled in programs without their knowledge or approval. Consumers with complaints about cramming (charges on their utility bill for services not requested) or slamming (being switched to a new utility provider without permission) should contact the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) at 1-800-686-7826. Complaints about cramming or slamming of telephone service can also be made to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) at 1-888-225-5322.

Utility Complaints?

For complaints about utility services, contact the PUCO at 1-800-686-7826.

For complaints about non-utility matters, contact the Ohio Attorney General at
1-800-282-0515.

You also may contact the Governor's Office at 614-466-3555 and your state senator or state representative at 800-282-0253.

 

General Consumer Tips:

Consumers should be vigilant in their dealings with persons seeking to sell utility products or services over the telephone or door-to-door. Keep the following tips in mind:

  • Ask for the salesperson’s name and, if a face-to-face meeting, ask to see the salesperson’s company identification;
  • Keep your utility bill and account number private;
  • Beware of saying “yes” on the phone. An affirmative response to a salesperson’s question can be taken as consent to enrollment in a service you did not request;
  • Know what you are currently paying for telephone, electricity or natural gas services, and use your current rate as a comparison for other offers; and
  • Do not give in to high-pressure tactics. There are other ways to sign up for an offer.

Emergency Payment Scam

What is it? In 2013, there have been reports in Ohio about telephone scammers calling consumers and convincing them to pay their utility bill using a credit card or a prepaid card.

How does it happen? The scammers pretend to be affiliated with the utility and threaten the disconnection of utility service if the payment is not made immediately by credit card or by a particular prepaid card sold at convenience and drug stores.  As a result, either the scammer has the customer’s credit card information, or the customer is stuck with a prepaid card that the utility might not honor.

AEP has been alerting customers about this tactic by including the note in its monthly bill: “Scam Alert: Telephone scammers are calling customers claiming to represent AEP or AEP Ohio. The caller threatens to cut off electricity service if money is not paid immediately by credit card or some other means. We don't call to ask for personal information, banking information, or credit/debit card payments.”

Vectren has reported that a similar scam was being used to coerce its Indiana and Ohio energy customers to make payments with a prepaid debit or credit card. And a similar scam involving FirstEnergy was reported by the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

How to avoid it: Consumers should be aware that utilities do not generally require their customers to make immediate payments using credit cards nor do they request personal information in this manner. Consumers should be cautious before giving sensitive personal information over the telephone.
 


Utilities Fraud Can Lead to Identity Theft

What is it? According to the Federal Trade Commission, 20 percent of Ohio's identity theft complaints in 2011 were the result of telephone or utilities fraud. This was the second highest percentage reported statewide. Overall, 1,529 out of 7,479 identity theft complaints in Ohio were attributed to utilities or telephone fraud.

Nationwide, telephone or utilities fraud was the third most common type of reported identity theft. In addition, approximately 29 percent of those committing fraud and identity theft used the telephone as the initial method to contact consumers.

How does it happen? One example of telephone utility fraud occurring with increasing frequency begins with callers identifying themselves as representatives of a federal or state agency providing a grant to pay a customer’s utility bill in full for one month. While there are low-income payment assistance programs offered either through the state (the Percentage of Income Payment Program (“PIPP”), or PIPP Plus) or the federal government (Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP), currently there is no single government grant available to pay the full amount of a customer’s monthly bill. The purpose of such offers is to lure unsuspecting consumers into giving up sensitive personal information that can later lead to identity theft.

How to avoid it: OCC offers fact sheets about payment assistance programs available to low-income customers on its website. Consumers should review available information about such programs and contact their local utility to determine whether additional assistance is available.
 


Consumers' Calling History For Sale

Consumers using wireless service should be aware that a list of calls recently dialed from their phone may be obtained through several websites. Some websites also offer to provide other personal information, including the non-published home telephone number based on an address provided by an individual.

By law, telephone companies are required to protect the confidentiality of your telephone calls. Your telephone records cannot be disclosed to third parties without your consent or a court order. However, there is no foolproof way to guarantee the complete security of your calling history.

Consumers should take steps to protect private information and understand the potential for scams, including identity theft. The following steps can be taken to help prevent unauthorized access to your calling records:

  • Read your carrier’s privacy protection policy;
  • Use a password to protect your account;
  • Inform the carrier if you do not wish to receive unsolicited sales calls; and
  • Have your carrier deactivate online access to your account.

Consumers also can report any concerns or complaints to their wireless company or enforcement agencies such as the Ohio Attorney General's Office and the FCC
 


Telemarketing to Wireless Phones

Some customers have received warnings that if they do not add their wireless phone number to the national Do-Not-Call list, it will be sold to telemarketers or placed in a national wireless directory. These warnings are not accurate. According to the FCC and other sources, consumers should know that it is illegal for most telemarketers to place calls to wireless phones.  While most telemarketing calls to a wireless phone are illegal, consumers may still feel more secure adding their wireless phone number to the national Do-Not-Call list.  For more information on the Do-Not-Call list, click here.
 


Do-Not-Call List Scam

What is it? Consumers provide information to a third-party because they believe that with the provision of that information, they are enrolling or confirming their enrollment on a state Do-Not-Call registry. But that private information is later used for fraudulent activity.

How does it happen? Consumers receive a call to enroll or verify their enrollment on the state Do-Not-Call registry. To confirm his or her identity, the consumer agrees to give the caller information such as a Social Security number, bankcard or account numbers. The information is later used for making unauthorized purchases, stealing identity and money, etc.

How to avoid it? Don't be tricked into believing that Ohio has a state Do-Not-Call registry. Ohio uses the national registry to identify residents who do not want to be called. Keep in mind that the officials who operate the national Do-Not-Call registry do not call consumers to enroll or confirm enrollment on the registry.  And consumers do not have to provide Social Security or bank account numbers to place telephone numbers on the national Do-Not-Call registry.
 


809 Scam

What is it? Consumers dial telephone numbers beginning with area codes 809, 284, 876 or another unfamiliar area code and inadvertently and unknowingly make high-cost international calls.

How does it happen? Consumers receive an email or voicemail encouraging them to call a number to hear about a prize or an important message. The three-digit area code used to dial the number actually dials outside of the country. Callers are unaware that they made an international call until they receive their telephone bill.

How to avoid it? Check unfamiliar area codes before returning calls.
 


Caller ID Spoofing Scam

What is it? Caller ID spoofing occurs when a scammer causes a different telephone number from its own to appear on a consumer's Caller ID display.

How does it happen? This can be done by using special software that allows a caller to mask its true Caller ID information. When a caller's identity is spoofed, consumers may be inclined to answer the telephone call since it may appear to be from someone they know or a local telephone number. Similar to other scams, once the caller has the consumer on the line, the caller may try to obtain personal information, such as a social security number, by claiming to be from the police, a utility, a government agency or a bank.

How to avoid it? To help prevent falling victim to this scam, consumers should:

  • Be cautious of calls they do not recognize on their Caller ID;
  • Not disclose personal information;
  • Ask the caller for a call back number and verify that he or she is legitimate; and
  • Ask that a request for personal information be put in writing.

Telemarketers using Caller ID spoofing are in violation of the federal Do-Not-Call rules because they are not disclosing their telephone number to callers. Complaints about violations of the Do-Not-Call rules can be submitted to the Ohio Attorney General's Office or to federal agencies.
 


Call Forwarding Scam

What is it? A caller persuades a consumer to push *72, a code often used to activate Call Forwarding, followed by dialing a telephone number, sometimes leading to a long-distance operator. Once Call Forwarding is activated, all of the consumer's calls are transferred to that telephone number. The scam can be used to stick the consumer with charges for such services as collect or third-party calls.

How does it happen? A caller may pose as, for example, a law enforcement agency to convince the consumer to push *72 and then a specific telephone number. Many consumers are not familiar with the *72 function and how it can cause their telephone number to be misused through this type of scam.

How to avoid it? Consumers receiving calls asking them to dial a telephone code such as *72 should beware. There are no legitimate reasons an unknown caller would need a consumer to use this function.
 


Call Splashing Scam

What is it? Call splashing occurs when a consumer uses a public telephone (i.e., payphone, hotel, airport telephone) and makes a long-distance call that is routed to a distant call center before being passed to the consumer's preferred long-distance carrier. The hand off may cause the consumer to be charged a higher long-distance rate for the call.

How does it happen? When the call is "handed off" from the call center to the long-distance carrier, the long distance company charges the consumer for a more expensive call originating from the call center, not the consumer’s location. If the caller asks to be transferred during the call or consents to a call transfer after receiving an operator’s instructions, he/she may be “splashed” (billed from a separate, more expensive location).

How to avoid it? Consumers may avoid being "splashed" by carefully listening to the operator’s instructions and not consenting to a call transfer until they have a clear understanding of all the details. After using a public telephone for long-distance calls, always verify the origination and destination locations when the telephone bill is received. If either the calling point is incorrect and/or the billing rate is higher, call the long-distance company to express your concerns and request the correct billing rate. For more information on splashing, visit the FCC's website at www.fcc.gov.
 


Jamming

What is it? The local telephone company places an unauthorized freeze on an account, which prevents a customer from switching to another local or long distance telephone provider.

How does it happen? Jamming occurs when the local telephone company places a freeze on an account without the customer's consent or knowledge. An account freeze should only occur when a customer voluntarily adds a freeze to an account to prevent being switched to a new carrier without the customer's consent.

How to avoid it? Consumers can call their local telephone company to find out if a freeze has been added to their account.

For more information on telephone scams, visit the FCC's website at www.fcc.gov. In addition, by clicking here consumers can file complaints at the FCC regarding such issues as junk faxes, Do-Not-Call violations and prerecorded telephone messages.
 


Rights Involving Unauthorized Pay-per-use Calls

Telephone customers should know their rights if they receive charges for "pay per use" calls, usually involving a telephone number beginning with 900 or 976 they do not recognize. Billing disputes involving these charges need to be made to the local telephone company within 60 days from the time the bill is issued. During an investigation, customers do not have to pay for these charges. Basic local and long-distance telephone service cannot be disconnected based on any past-due charges involving a 900 or 976 number.

In addition, customers wishing to block anyone in their home from making calls to 900 or 976 numbers should inquire about services provided by their local telephone company. Typically this type of blocking service is free to customers who request it when they establish their telephone line. A one-time activation fee is sometimes required for those with existing telephone service.

Information believed accurate but not guaranteed.
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