California wildfires, winter storms in Texas and Colorado, tornadoes in Alabama – natural disasters are bad enough but utility scams make things even worse. Desperate homeowners with no power, phone or gas lines are prey to scammers impersonating utility representatives. They trick the unsuspecting – especially seniors – by phone, text, email and even by coming right to the door!
How scammers contact you
There are so many natural disaster utility scams the industries 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 highlights; you can see the entire booklet here.
At your door: Be suspicious of anyone who arrives at your home or business without an appointment asking for immediate payment or access to your dwelling. Don’t let them in unless you have scheduled an appointment or reported a problem. Always ask for ID. Scammers have different ruses to gain access to your home, where they can steal items (they often work in pairs) or your personal information. They claim:
- They must check/reset/repair/replace or inspect your electrical wiring, water pipes, natural gas pipes, or appliances.
- They offer a free energy audit, energy efficiency inspection, water quality or pressure testing, or some other service.
- They come to your door claiming that there is a major gas or water leak in the area and that they need to come inside to check the pipes or lines.
If a utility employee or authorized contractor needs access to your home, an appointment will be scheduled in advance, and proper identification will be provided for your review.
On the phone: Scammers call threatening disconnection of your utility service and demanding immediate payment by prepaid cards – always a tip off. Your utility will mail you one or more disconnection notices before disconnecting or shutting off your utility service. They will also offer several bill payment options without specifying the type of payment you need to make. Other phone scams include:
- Calling with a phony account routing number for you to use to pay your utility bills, receive a credit, or obtain federal assistance – but first you must share personal and banking information;
- Calling with a phony claim of a separate payment to replace or install a utility related device;
- Calling with a ‘refund” for an overpayment of your utility bill, but you must provide personal bank account information or a credit card number;
- Calling after a natural disaster to offer ‘express service” to restore electricity, water or natural gas quickly – for immediate payment of an upfront “reconnection fee.”
Wait, there’s more
Text: Smishing, short for SMS phishing, is a relatively new scam that uses phony text messages to trick mobile phone users into giving scammers personal information to use for identity theft. Utility companies typically do not text you unless you have signed up for a specific notification service offered by your utility.
Emails: Scammers are very ingenious in the different ways they try to steal your cash or your personal identification by “impersonating” a utility company by email. Some scammers email a bogus utility bill directing 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 severe weather may have shut off your electricity, heat, and water, and might pose as your utility company. They might call to say that they’re sorry your power went out and offer a reimbursement, but first they need your bank account information. They might email you to say that there’s an error in their system, and you have to give them personal information so they can turn your gas on again. They could even threaten to leave your utilities shut off if you don’t send them money immediately. But those are all lies.” The FTC advises consumers:
- Never to call a number left in a voicemail text or email.
- Always contact the utility directly using the number on your bill to verify the message.
- If the caller claims you must pay a past due bill or lose service, never give banking info over the phone.
- Always use a phone number you know is legitimate.
- If the caller tells you to pay by gift cards (like iTunes or Amazon), cash reload cards (like MoneyPak, Vanilla, or Reloadit), or cryptocurrency (like Bitcoin), or money transfer, it’s a scam. Period.
For more information on natural disaster utility (and other) scams, check out this earlier article on Senior Planet.