You've received a phone call from a utility company demanding a payment right now or your utilities will be immediately shut off – or maybe representatives of your utility show up at your door to make the same threat. What do you do?
Don't pay them. It's almost certainly a scam.
Utility companies don't make threats requiring immediate payment to avoid shutoff. They will send at least one disconnection notice by mail and provide several payment options to avoid shutoff by a certain time. Electricity, gas, or water providers don't want to cut off your service – they just want you to make your payments.
Of course, if you ignore all late payment and disconnection notices, the utility provider will eventually cut you off – but that's only as a last resort.
Variations of this scam include unscheduled meter repairs, free energy audits without any appointment or notice, or unsolicited requests for personal and account information.
Aside from pressure to pay immediately, what are the other signs of a utility scam?
Requests for unusual payment methods are a huge red flag. Utilities will never ask you to use wire transfers, gift cards, or prepaid debit cards like Green Dot. Scammers usually do.
Demands to pay a bill that you know you already made are another giveaway. Mistakes do happen, and your payment could have been lost in the mail or incorrectly recorded – but you'll get an overdue notice in the mail, not a phone call or face-to-face demand for payment.
Caller ID may correctly show the utility company's number, but criminals can spoof caller ID into falsely displaying that number. Hang up and dial the utility's customer service number directly (it will generally be printed somewhere on the billing statement and will be available on the utility's website). You can then verify if there are any real payment issues to be addressed and report any scamming attempts.
If people claiming to be utility employees show up at your door, ask for proper identification and verify them through the customer service number. Do not let them into your home unless you've reported a problem or scheduled an appointment with the utility company.
Utility scamming tends to be profitable for scammers. Data from the Better Business Bureau's Scam Tracker showed that in 2017, the median loss in a utility scam was $500 – almost twice the loss ($274) for all victims of scams during that same period.
That may be because utility scammers hit businesses as well as homeowners – and a well-timed scam during peak business hours may be overwhelming to undertrained staff. Picture a bar on a weekend night or an auto dealership during a big promotional sale. Managers in these environments already have enough to deal with. They may panic and pay because they think they can't take a chance that the threat is real.
Did you already fall victim to a utility scammer? File complaints with the Federal Trade Commission and the Better Business Bureau's Scam Tracker to help catch scammers before they strike others – and then learn from your mistake.
Utility companies are trying to warn customers about scams through the efforts of Utilities United Against Scams (UUAS), a consortium of over 100 North American utilities. In 2017, UUAS fielded over 15,000 reports of people losing money in utility scams. That number is unlikely to decrease in 2018.
Scammers are resourceful and relentless. You must be equally resourceful and relentless to avoid being pressured into making a bad decision. Know the signs of a scam and verify before you act.
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