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Articles in support of small community water and wastewater operators.

Protecting Your Customers From Utility Scams

Protecting Your Customers From Utility Scams

There's a new hero in town: Utilities United Against Scams. In the past year, this national organization made up of more than 100 electric, gas, and water utilities, has successfully worked to disconnect more than four dozen 1-800 numbers tracked to scam artists and swindlers who pose as utility representatives threatening to shut off a customer's service unless bills are paid. The organization has also partnered with law enforcement and created materials and resources for utilities to use to warn their customers.

Why are these warnings so valuable?  A recent report published by the Better Business Bureau (BBB) found that people are particularly susceptible to utility scams. This, combined with a median financial loss of $500 — quite a sum for many customers of small systems — means that there is no incentive for this type of activity to decrease. In fact, according to a study by Hiya, utility scams rose 109 percent in 2016 alone. 

While only a handful of mostly larger water utilities are on the roster at this time, the AWWA is encouraging additional water utilities to sign up for a free membership in Utilities United Against Scams in order to pool resources with other systems to fight this growing problem and amplify public outreach. The organization also hopes to create a centralized database for fraud committed against utility customers that could prove useful to water systems of all sizes. 

To be sure, it is important for organizations such as UUAS to address concerns specific to water utilities, concerns that are different from the typical payment scams common to other utilities: mainly, imposters trying to gain access to homes and businesses with the intent to rob by claiming the need to check meters, test water or check pipes. The Middlesex Water Company advises customers to ask for a photo ID before allowing anyone into their home and Fraud.org suggests customers take these steps to protect themselves: always call the utility directly, never pay by wire transfer or prepaid cards and never give out personal information. 

In attempt to raise awareness of these pressing issues, UUAS has created the Consumer Guide to Imposter Utility Scams to educate leaders and consumers about the types of scams that are occurring across the country (phone, in-person and internet) as well as provide tips to share with community members to avoid scams and contact information for assistance in case a customer becomes a victim. 

Are you interested in finding out more about the utility scams that are showing up in your community? Check out this interactive Scam Tracker map from the Better Business Bureau. And customers aren't the only ones who can fall prey to crafty scammers: according to this article from Idaho Rural Water, there was an outbreak of scammers in 2012 tricking rural water operators into receiving "free samples" of water treatment products that they were later charged for!

Water Documentaries, Public Awareness and Customer Concerns

Water Documentaries, Public Awareness and Customer Concerns

Much has been said about shining a light on the value of clean water and the hidden infrastructure and personnel involved. In the past decade or so dozens of documentary films about water have been produced that do exactly that. From films that expose the aged and decaying pipes under our feet to films that reveal more complex and difficult truths about who is responsible for this decay, documentary filmmakers can bring big water issues, and the controversies and emotions that come with them, into the spotlight. 

Take for example the recent documentary Troubled Water, a film that highlights water contamination and public health issues in America. Watching the film, and seeing, sometimes for the first time, that many communities do not have access to safe drinking water can hit hard on the public's emotions. They might wonder about the lack of access to safe drinking water or about why there are so many toxins and, especially, they might wonder what people plan to do, and when, to fix the problems. 

Or this film about plastic microfibers showing up in tap water. Samples taken from Asia to Europe to the Americas, the video maintains, demonstrate that 80% of the world's tap water contain these fibers. Scientists interviewed in the film, while agreeing that more research is necessary, believe that chemicals bound to these fibers could be toxic to humans. With plastic surrounding us everywhere we look, the public can feel like there is no escape! 

With their dramatic soundtracks and interviews, these documentaries can certainly get people mobilized to push for meaningful change. Yet they can also erode trust and authentic communication between the community, local governments and their water utilities, especially if the concerns are based on incomplete knowledge.

The trick perhaps is to first acknowledge that any kind of public water awareness, no matter how it comes about, is essentially a good thing. Indeed, according to this EPA fact sheet on communicating with customers about contamination, every contact with the public provides an opportunity to build up public trust, develop closer ties, explain your utility's commitment to delivering safe water, prepare the public for future communication and gain support for investment in their water system.

At the same time it is important to know that whether or not these films play a significant role in public perception, results from recent polls show that Americans are increasingly becoming more concerned about water quality issues. Many utility personnel field water quality concerns from their customers on a daily basis already, so being prepared with good information and a positive attitude can go a long way in staying calm through a public relations storm, or just as inquiries increase over time. The AWWA has a helpful toolkit for talking honestly and openly with your community about difficult issues such as lead contamination.  

In the meantime, you can get ahead of the game by anticipating questions that your customers might have about their water, where it comes from, and who is in charge. Here is a list of recent water documentaries (with links for watching if available) that may be weighing on your customers minds lately. 

  • Water & Power: A California Heist This films explores competing interests in California's groundwater reserves and the privatization of water.
  • Troubled Water This film investigates drinking water contamination in communities across the country.
  • Liquid Assets This film tells the story of our water infrastructure
  • Tapped This film examines the role of the bottled water industry and its effects on our health, climate change, pollution, and our reliance on oil.
  • The Water Front This film explores issues of affordability and changing neighborhoods, as well as the strengths and limitations of community activism.
  • Flow This film asks the question: Can anyone really own water? 
  • Nova: Poisoned Water  This NOVA series uncovers the science behind corrosion control and lead in pipes.
  • Parched This National Georgraphic water series treats a variety of topics including affordability, lead in pipes, PFAs/C-8 contamination, rooftop water tanks and more.
  • Beyond the Mirage This film focuses on drought, growth and the future of water in the West.
  • Written on Water This film shows innovators in Olton, Texas who fight to keep their town alive against the decline of the Ogallala Aquifer. 

Finally, it is hard to not get overwhelmed by the sense of despair that such documentaries can sometimes produce. However, this documentary produced in 2011 by the Alliance of Indiana Rural Water takes a more positive spin on how states and towns can tackle water quality challenges a little bit at a time to add up to significant improvements for all. 

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