You receive a telephone call, email, or text message with a message from your utility company claiming that “your service is about to be shut off unless you immediately pay all past due charges.” And, they don’t want payment in a conventional way (credit card or check) but through a pre-paid debit or gift card.
Or, a “serviceman” shows up unannounced at your door and asks to come inside “to inspect your wiring, furnace, meter ….”
What do you do?
There have been a variety of scams where individuals impersonate your utility company in order to gain access to your personal or financial information, or simply to steal from you. Here are some common scams:
(1) Service interruption: The typical scam involves an unsolicited telephone call from someone claiming to be with your utility company. The message is usually that you have unpaid utility bills and that your service is about to be disconnected. They demand immediate payment using a prepaid debit or gift card, or maybe a wire transfer. They may also request bank and/or credit card information to “verify” an account.
(2) Theft of Services (ID Theft): According to the Federal Trade Commission, phone or utilities fraud accounted for 11% of all identity theft complaints received from Colorado consumers in 2014. Criminals obtain personal and financial information from a victim and then order phone or utility service in your name (but not at your address).
(3) Door-to-Door Scams: A couple of folks show up at your door without an appointment and ask to inspect you wiring, gas lines, furnace, etc. They may even flash identification that appears to be from your utility company. Their goal is to be invited into your home and to distract you long enough to steal money, jewelry, or other valuables.
(4) Refund Scams: You may receive a phone call or an email claiming that you have overpaid a utility bill and offering to assist you in getting a refund. They may try to collect personal and financial information from you.
(5) Federal Assistance Programs: This is one that resurfaces from time-to-time. A phone call or email claims that you might be eligible for assistance with your home energy bills through some vague federal government program. They will attempt to collect personal and financial information to see if you qualify.
(6) Email Scams: Similar to other phishing scams involving bank account or credit cards, this scam involves an unsolicited email claiming some problem with your utility bill and directing you to another website to review the issue. At that website – which may even look like a legitimate utility website – you will be directed to supply personal and financial information.
Tips for avoiding utilities scams:
- If you receive a call claiming that your utility service is about to be shut off unless you pay immediately, hang up the phone without providing any information and contact your utility company directly (customer service number will appear on your bill). Your utility will contact you in writing if you have an overdue balance and BEFORE they send you written notice of service being shut off.
- Your utility has many convenient ways for making a payment. If you are asked to obtain a pre-paid debit or credit card, to wire funds, or any other unconventional method of payment, do not agree to make a payment in this fashion and contact your utility company directly.
- NEVER provide personal or financial information in response to an unsolicited telephone call or email.
- If someone claiming to be from your utility company shows up at your door without an appointment, NEVER allow them into your home without first contacting your utility company directly to verify that the people at your door are actual representatives of the utility and that they have legitimate business at your home. Even then, always check their official company identifications before opening your door.
- If you believe that you are owed a refund by your utility company, contact them directly and arrange for either a credit on a future bill or a direct refund. Don’t respond to an unsolicited phone call or email offering to provide assistance in obtaining a refund.
- There is no federal government program to provide assistance with paying your utility bills (there may be some tax deductions for some energy efficiency and solar energy expenditures). Don’t respond to an unsolicited phone call or email offering to provide this assistance.
- Don’t be fooled because your caller ID or an email seeking information about you or the payment of a utility bill looks like the call or email comes from your utility company. It’s easy for scammers to spoof (imitate) a utility company’s telephone number or email address and even to make convincing looking websites. Again, it’s always safer to contact your utility directly than to respond to an unsolicited phone call or email.
If you believe you have been victimized by a utilities scam or wish to report suspicious activity, please file a report with the Colorado Attorney General.