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DENVER - Picture this: You get a call from a person claiming to be an energy company representative telling you you're behind on your electricity bill. They tell you you need to pay right away via check over the phone or via prepaid debit card. Do you pay? Scammers are hoping you'll say "yes."

That's the premise of a new scam that energy companies across the country are seeing, including Xcel Energy in Colorado.

"We've definitely seen an uptick [in the scam,]" said Xcel Energy Spokesperson Gabriel Romero. "They'll call and say you're behind on your bill. 'You need to pay immediately.'"

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According to figures from Xcel last year, 480 customers reported getting calls from scammers. So far this year, 3,902 customers report being targeted. Xcel has created a task force that is working with the Secret Service to identify the practices of the scammers and attempt to catch them. The company is also mailing warnings to customers.

The scammers claim to be with either the energy company itself or with a third-party company. When a viewer tipped 9NEWS Reporter TaRhonda Thomas off about the scam, she called the phone number. A scammer claiming to be with an energy company asked her to buy a prepaid Visa card at a convenience store and call him back with the card number. That, says Romero, is usually how the scam operates.

"There is no name on this prepaid card. It really doesn't belong to anybody," Romero said. "And once that money is used, there really isn't a way to trace it back to one particular person."

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Romero says energy companies across the country have seen an increase in the same scam. Many of the scammers target businesses.

"I think what these scammers have figured out is the owner may not necessarily be at the business," said Romero, noting that the phones are often answered by managers and employees who have no intricate knowledge of the business' finances. "So a manager gets a call from one of these scammers ... sometimes, they have no choice if they can't get a hold of the owner to make that decision right then and there."

Since the money is taken by scammers, the energy companies do not cover the losses. Xcel Energy encourages customers to report scams to its customer service department at 1-800-895-4999. Business owners with questions may also call the Xcel Business Solutions Center at 1-800-481-4700.

Xcel advises any customer who gets a suspicious call to hang up and then call Xcel's customer service number to check the true status of their bill.

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(KUSA-TV © 2014 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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