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. There are 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 aimed at convincing you to make a payment or supply personal or financial data to sort out a service issue.
- Identity thieves use stolen personal information to open utility accounts and run up charges in the victim's name. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received more than 31,000 reports of utility-related identity theft in 2019.
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.