The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting colder and you could swear you paid that last gas and electric bill. But the caller from the power company is adamant that you're overdue and says if you don't pay up now, the juice goes out. That's the last thing you want in the chilly dead of winter (or the long, hot summer, as the case may be). Best not to risk it.
That's what fraudsters want you to think, and enough people do to make utilities a common subject of impostor scams, by far the most common type of fraud reported to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Impersonators call homes and small businesses demanding payment for supposedly delinquent bills and threatening to terminate service. They time attacks for maximum urgency, stepping up activity during peak heating or air conditioning season, and targeting businesses at busy times (like the lunch or dinner rush at a restaurant).
A fake utility worker might also seek payment up front to replace or repair a meter or other device, or solicit personal information in the name of signing you up for a government program that reduces energy bills. Utilities United Against Scams, a consortium of more than 100 North American natural gas, electric and water companies and trade groups, notes several other varieties of utility con:
- Rather than claiming you owe money, scam callers might say you've overpaid and ask for bank account or credit card information to make a "refund."
- Scammers pretending to be utility workers show up at your home to inspect or repair equipment, investigate a supposed gas leak or do a free "audit" for energy efficiency. They may try to charge you for the phony service, sell you unnecessary products, collect personal information for use in identity theft or simply gain entry to steal valuables.
- Utility impostors send out phishing emails or "smishing" text messages to trick you into making a payment or supplying personal or financial data.
Utility scammers particularly target older Americans and people who are not native English speakers, according to CenterPoint Energy, a Houston-based utility that provides direct gas or electricity service in six states. But anyone who pays a utility bill can be a mark - and anyone can avoid being victimized by taking a few precautions.
- An unscheduled or unsolicited call or visit from someone claiming to represent your power or water company.
- Threats to cut off service unless an overdue bill or maintenance cost is paid immediately.
- A demand for payment by wire transfer, cryptocurrency, gift card, or cash-reload card - scammers' favored methods.
- Do call the utility, at the customer service number listed on your bill, to find out if you're behind on a payment or if they have tried to contact you. Do not use a call-back number provided by an unknown caller.
- Do know how utilities operate. They do not request personal information over the phone, and they do not cut off service without considerable advance warning.
- Do ask questions of anyone calling you or coming to your door on supposed utility business - for example, their employee identification number, or the date and amount of your most recent payment.
- Do notify the utility if you've been approached by an impostor.
- Do notify neighbors if there's a suspected scammer making the rounds in the area.
- Don't provide personal or financial information to a caller or visitor you don't know.
- Don't wire money or provide numbers from prepaid cards to anyone who contacts you on utility matters.
- Don't get scared. A scammer will try to convince you the lights or water are about to go out. If you're actually behind on payments, the utility will send you a delinquent notice, probably more than once, and tell you the prospective shutoff date.
- Don't let a supposed utility employee into your home unless you have scheduled an appointment or reported a problem. Even if you have, check their identification first.
- Don't click on links in a utility-related email or text message unless you're certain it's from a real company.