A new wave of fraud involving prepaid debit cards has sprung up across the country, especially targeting residents of Hispanic communities. Officials at Western Massachusetts Electric Company and San Diego Gas & Electric have warned utility customers in both states about fraudulent phone calls from impostors threatening to suspend electric service unless they receive immediate payment.

Instead of trying to get the utility customers to pay for their overdue balances with regular credit cards or checking account numbers, the callers instruct their prospective victims to purchase prepaid debit cards with cash from local convenience stores. The instructions then direct customers to call back a special phone number to make payment with the new card information.

A WeMEC spokeswoman assured local reporters that legitimate phone agents can always confirm their identities by verifying an account's full service address, account number and amount past due. In a press release, SDG&E assured its customers that it, like most utility companies, does not proactively contact past due accountholders and ask for credit card information over the phone.

According to online scam researcher Joe Wein, fraud rings have learned to solicit payment methods that law enforcement officials can't easily trace. For years, many African and European scam artists used cash payments via Western Union or Moneygram, rather than risk being connected to stolen credit card numbers. The new twist on these classic scams replaces cash transfer services with prepaid debit cards, playing on the cards' ubiquity and convenience.

According to SDG&E, anyone receiving a call threatening to shut off utility services should hang up and dial the direct customer service hotline for their utility company. Likewise, legitimate utility workers always carry photo identification, and a customer service agent at their utility's call center can verify the reason for their visit. Although some local utilities use retail locations to accept cash payments for late bills, none require consumers to register a dedicated prepaid debit card just for an emergency payment.