Montreal

Hydro-Québec urges customers to be vigilant after spike in fraudulent messages

The utility says fraudsters are using phone calls, text messages and emails to trick Quebecers into handing over personal information or to scare them into making a false payment with a credit card.

Utility says to be wary of texts with spelling mistakes or links to suspicious websites

Hydro-Québec says scammers are targeting its customers because there's a better chance of success. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Have you received a suspicious message from Hydro-Québec demanding that you immediately pay your bill? If so, you're not alone.

The utility is warning customers to be on guard after a recent spike in fraud attempts. 

Hydro-Québec says the fraudsters are using phone calls, text messages and emails to trick Quebecers into handing over personal information or to scare them into making a false payment with a credit card. 

Spokesperson Jonathan Côté said the utility will never ask customers to provide private information via text message or email.  

"We're not going to ask for payment by credit card because we don't accept payments by credit card, so definitely if you see something like that it's most likely a fraud attempt," he said.

Hydro-Québec is using social media to warn customers about the scams. 

Côté says fraudsters are likely impersonating Hydro-Québec because there's a good chance that their target will be a client.

"Most people in Quebec are Hydro-Québec customers. So you're more likely to find somebody that could fall for the trap because these are sent pretty much at random," he said.

How to spot a scam, and what to do

Côté says to watch for spelling mistakes or awkward phrasing in the messages received. Another telltale sign is a link directing to a site where a user is prompted to enter personal information.

He advises people not to click the links and to call Hydro-Québec's customer service line or log in to its official website before acting.

"This way you know you're on the right website and if there's anything [wrong], the information is going to be in there," he said.

And if someone has given their personal information to an organization or person that they think is not affiliated with Hydro-Québec, he recommends logging into the website's customer space and changing their password to ensure no one else gets access to their account. 

He says another sign of potential fraud is if the sender insists that the matter is urgent. If there is any doubt about the legitimacy of the message, he says the best thing to do is to report it to the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC).

"Ninety-nine per cent of the cases, your hydro company or utility company is not going to call or send an email demanding an urgent payment or asking you to confirm personal information in an unsolicited manner," said Jeff Thompson, an investigator with the CAFC.

"Never react to these urgent-type messages," he said. "Take a step back. Do your due diligence. Confirm, verify, look up the phone number to your own utilities company on your own."

Thompson says the utility extortion scam is common. Fraudsters will "impersonate any sort of business or government agency or anything that can lend legitimacy or make the call seem legitimate," he said.

He says this is the most commonly reported type of scam at the CAFC. But he says the centre estimates only a tiny fraction of the actual amount of fraud gets reported because there is still a stigma associated with it.

Recovery is 'all about timing'

Both Côté and Thompson urge people who think they have been defrauded to call the police.

Thompson also recommends anyone who may have sent money to get in touch with their bank or the financial service provider used.

If people were solicited on a website, he encourages them to notify the site's administrator so they can take steps to take down the fraudulent ads.

As for recovery, "when it comes to fraud it's all about timing," Thompson said.

"As fast as you send the money, the fraudsters are moving it."

He says it's difficult to recover money because it gets spent in a matter of hours.

"There have been cases of restitution," he said. "But again, these aren't the majority."

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