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Scam prompts vigilance, tips

Pierce County Sheriff Everett Muhlhausen issued a warning about two men who posed as electric-company workers to get into a pair of rural homes.

The scammers evidently stole $420 from a home in Hager City while the elderly couple were away.

The men are said to approach homeowners in a friendly manner then casually ask when people wouldn't be home. The chatty pair said they needed to know so they could "trim trees and/or check voltage" without disturbing anyone.

The Miller's home in Hager City was burglarized during the time they had told the men they'd be gone.

The pair of crooks is said to drive a newer, shiny, black full-sized pickup towing a flatbed trailer. The men are described as having dark or tanned skin with medium builds and clean-shaven faces.

The sheriff says the men may be targeting elderly residents. Fox 9 news featured the scammer story, Channel 5 ran a quick spot about it, and the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote a story on it, too.

A fund has been set up for 87-year-old Katherine Miller and her husband. She had been saving cash for groceries and her sick husband's medication.

Send donations to Wells Fargo Bank, 401 Plum Street, Red Wing, MN 55066. Call (651) 388-6751 for more information.

Real providers say calling is key

Three electric companies serve Pierce County: Pierce Pepin Cooperative, Xcel Energy and River Falls Municipal Utilities.

All three companies had two, main scam-avoidance tips in common: First, ask to see the representative's company identification card. All regular employees carry them.

The second and only foolproof way to be sure electric company workers are real is to call the company and verify the work order.

Even if the companies sent a contractor who doesn't carry a company-issued ID card, the company who sent them can verify any work ordered.

A real electric company worker usually has the company logo on their vehicle and clothing.

Residents can also remain aware of the time of day. Except during emergencies, workers usually go out only during business hours - roughly 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Jerry DeWolfe of Pierce Pepin Cooperative said, "We contact our customers when we'll be in the area trimming trees, just as a way to notify them of what we're doing. Also, except for big construction projects, our tree-trimming workers drive company vehicles that have Pierce Pepin's logo on them."

Brian Elwood of Xcel Energy says he's seen this kind of scam before. He pointed out how easy it could be to obtain clothing with a company logo on it.

"Contractors often do our tree trimming, so we encourage customers to call our 800-number at any time of day to verify the work order, said Elwood. It's the only way to be sure they're legitimate."

"River Falls Municipal Utilities has contractors do our tree trimming, but it's only done during winter months," said customer-service specialist Jan Lorenz. "Our workers would normally have a service order with them or leave a door tag about what's going to happen. And our meter readers always knock on the door before cutting power to the house for any reason."

Electric company representatives agree that the scammers' story about "checking voltage" doesn't sound right. But the average citizen might not know why it doesn't sound right.

DeWolfe said, "This is something that can be done from our substations on a monitor. We wouldn't go to someone's house for that."

Lorenz said, "Voltage checks are unusual and the customer would certainly know it if they had a voltage problem. If that was the case, they would be calling us about the problem."

Policies and processes vary from electric company to electric company. They all agree that this scam is disturbing since electric workers often have legitimate business at people's homes.

Sheriff Muhlhausen says a good tip is just to not tell anyone when you won't be home.

As a result of the stories about the burglary last week, the sheriff even had one call from another state that had seen similar incidents. Law enforcement officials from both states are working together to see if the incidents are related in any way.

Representatives from power companies serving Pierce County all agreed that the only way to be sure that an electric company worker or contractor is legitimate is to call the company they claim to be with and verify the work order.