The theme of today’s column is remaining vigilant as a consumer.
It isn’t easy. First, you have to navigate the barrage of advertising about products and services in many forms. There are traditional channels such as newspaper, television and radio, plus the new waves of technology that have brought messages through emails, texts and alerts.
Then, consider the confusion that can result from what seems to be the growing number of bogus companies and scammers who aim to make money off your insecurities or take advantage of people who aren’t paying close enough attention.
With that in mind, here are items to watch out for:
Fake emails that appear to be from a legitimate company are nothing new. Called “phishing,” the scammers try to trick people into logging onto their website instead of a real company and entering account data or other financial information.
This week, a natural gas company based in Dallas is warning of a widespread email that seems to come from them. The scam is a bogus bill from something called Atmos Energy Corp. At least one Akron-area resident received the email. But Atmos does not do business in Ohio.
The fraudulent billing message references a fake account number and contains links to a compromised website. Anyone who receives this email or others like it should delete it and do not click on any links.
A reader this week complained that a door-to-door sales person making natural gas offers gave the impression that the person was representing a state agency. There was a supposed discount available “due to recent deregulation.” As a reminder, no state agencies nor the gas nor electric company send representatives door to door. They also do not make calls about utilities.
The door-to-door pitch sounds similar to robocalls many consumers were complaining about last fall.
It is worthwhile to remember that just because someone calls or mails you a flyer or knocks on your door, it does not mean they have the best price for a particular product. You can research current natural gas and electricity offers on the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO)’s “Apples to Apples” chart at www.puco.ohio.gov or the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel comparative chart at www.occ.ohio.gov.
Also as a reminder, I continue to recommend the Standard Choice Offer (SCO) for purchasing natural gas. This is the monthly variable through a supplier assigned by Dominion East Ohio based on a state-approved formula. Wholesale gas prices have been low and are forecast to remain low with large supplies.
The SCO for January starting Jan. 14 is $5.01 per thousand cubic feet (mcf), up from $4.42/mcf in December and a rise from previous months. The price is still at or well below the fixed-rates available to the general public.
A previous column on the SCO and my advice on shopping for electricity providers is available online at www.ohio.com/betty.
Remember, when you call Dominion to request the SCO, you must specifically ask for the SCO by name, not just tell them you want a variable rate.
A reader this week said he looked at his bill after getting two months of the Standard Service Offer (SSO), and by the third month when he was expecting the SCO, he noticed his price was much higher.
He was getting something called the Monthly Variable Rate (MVR). This is a monthly variable rate from an assigned provider by Dominion, but it is unregulated, so it can be whatever that provider chooses to charge.
This system means customers have to know what amounts to a “secret code” in the SCO to get the cheapest rate.
But it is all part of negotiated agreements among the utility and regulators. Dominion is doing this to phase out the SCO for residential customers (the SCO has already been phased out for businesses and non-profits).
Dominion has agreed not to apply for any changes to the SCO residential program until at least 2015, and it would take a year or two after that if approved, so it’s nothing customers need to worry about now.
If you’re willing to go with a variable rate, you should go with the SCO, since it is based on that state-approved formula. It makes no sense to go with the MVR or a competitor’s own monthly variable.
If your bill shows you are on the MVR (it will say so in parentheses), you can switch to the SCO by asking Dominion. It could still take up to two months to go back to the SSO first before seeing the SCO on your bill.
The recent Target credit card information breach — and word on Friday that it affected as many as 70 million consumers — is a good reminder about reviewing purchase transactions.
You can either do that via online access to banks and credit/debit card records or by calling your financial institution’s automated lines to get nearly real-time accounting of transactions.
Watch for items that you didn’t purchase but also look for small transactions you don’t recognize. Scammers put through little charges as a test.
Don’t assume an unrecognizable charge is fraudulent. I have been unsure on first glance about a charge and when investigating more, it could turns out it was something we purchased, but the merchant’s name may have been different.
Target on Friday said it would be making a free credit monitoring service and identity theft protection service available to customers who shopped at the stores. More information is to be released next week. After that, I’ll review the options and revisit why credit freezes are also a good preventive measure.