Wildfires in California, winter storms in Texas and Colorado, tornadoes in Alabama – natural disasters are bad enough, but utility scams make things worse. Desperate homeowners without power, telephone, or gas lines are prey to scammers posing as utility representatives. They cheat the unsuspecting – especially seniors – by phone, text, email, and even by coming to the door!
How scammers contact you
There are so many natural disaster utilities that the industries have created Utilities United Against Scams to raise awareness. Utilitiesunited.org offers tips in an online booklet prepared by Sheri Givens, of Givens Energy, for the Edison Electric Institute (EEI). Here are some of the highlights; you can view the entire booklet here.
At your door: Be on the lookout for anyone arriving at your home or business without an appointment and asking for immediate payment or access to your home. Don̵
- They should check / reset / repair / replace or inspect your electrical wiring, water lines, natural gas lines or appliances.
- They offer a free energy audit, energy efficiency inspection, water quality or pressure testing, or some other service.
- They come to you claiming there is a major gas or water leak in the area and they should go in to check the pipes or pipes.
If a utility worker or authorized contractor requires access to your home, an appointment will be scheduled in advance and you will be provided with the correct identification for your assessment.
On the phone: Scammers call impending interruption to your utility and demand immediate payment with prepaid cards – always a tip. Your utility will email you one or more disconnection notifications before you disconnect or exit the utility. They also provide several invoice payment options without specifying the type of payment you need to make. Other phone scams include:
- Calling with a bogus account routing number that you can use to pay your utility bills, get a credit, or get federal help – but first you need to share personal and banking information;
- Calling with a false claim of an individual payment to replace or install a utility-related device;
- Call with a ‘refund’ for an overpayment of your utility bill, but you must provide personal bank account information or a credit card number;
- Call after a natural disaster to offer ‘express service’ to quickly restore electricity, water or natural gas – for immediate payment of an upfront ‘reconnection fee’.
Wait, there is more
Text: Smishing, short for SMS phishing, is a relatively new scam that uses fake text messages to trick cell phone users into giving scammers personal information they can use for identity theft. Utilities don’t typically text you unless you’ve signed up for a specific notification service provided by your utility.
E-mails: Scammers are very resourceful in the different ways they try to steal your money or your personal identification by ‘impersonating’ a utility company by email. Some scammers email a fake utility bill that leads you to a scam website that steals your personal information.
FTC offers advice
According to Emily Wu, an FTC attorney, in a February article (link is here) “Scammers know that severe weather may have cut off your electricity, heat and water and impersonate your utility company. They can call to say they are sorry your power went out and offer compensation, but first they need your bank account information. They can email you to say there is a bug in their system and that you need to provide them with personal information so they can turn your gas back on. They can even threaten to cut your utilities if you don’t send them money immediately. But those are all liesThe FTC advises consumers:
- Never call a number that is still in a voicemail or email.
- Always contact the utility directly at the number on your invoice to verify the message.
- If the caller claims that you have an overdue bill or lose service, never provide bank details over the phone.
- Always use a phone number that you know is legitimate.
- If the caller tells you to pay with gift cards (such as iTunes or Amazon), cash prepaid cards (such as MoneyPak, Vanilla or Reloadit) or cryptocurrency (such as Bitcoin), or money transfer, it is a scam. Period.
Read this earlier article on Senior Planet to learn more about natural disaster relief programs (and others).