Personal Finance

What Can Someone Do With Your Electric Bill

By David Krug David Krug is the CEO & President of Bankovia. He's a lifelong expat who has lived in the Philippines, Mexico, Thailand, and Colombia. When he's not reading about cryptocurrencies, he's researching the latest personal finance software. 16 minute read

A pair of young men and women in uniforms I didn’t recognize showed up at my home a few years back. They introduced themselves as representatives from “the electricity company,” and said they were in my neighborhood because they’d been “receiving calls from all [my] neighbors questioning why their rates are so high.” They then requested to view my most recent utility bill in order to check for a certain code at the top. This would indicate that I am getting “double-charged” on all of my bills if it were to happen.

It seemed serious, like something a customer who was concerned about saving money on their electricity bills would want to remedy immediately, which is likely what the people knocking on the door were depending on. And instead of getting my most recent bill and going to show it to them, I slammed the door in their faces.

Logic tells me I shouldn’t. Due to my prior knowledge that their account was false. It was all a ruse to get me to change my electricity supplier.

This is only one of several possible utility scams, but one that specifically targets your electric service at home. As was the case at my place, some of them are handled in person, while others are often handled over the phone or electronically. Scammers may offer cheaper costs or upgraded equipment, or they may threaten to cut off service if you do not fall for their tricks.

Despite this, the true goal of every con artist is to make as much money as possible off of you. Take heed of these seven frequent scams perpetrated by purported utility companies.

Scams involving door-to-door sales

Congress deregulated energy markets for the states in the 1990s. In a deregulated state, residents would have the option to switch to another provider for their power service. As an alternative, they would have their choice of electrical providers in a competitive market.

To date, deregulation has been adopted by 17 states plus DC. Consumers in these states can choose between two different types of energy providers: one that generates the electricity they use and one that is responsible for maintaining the electrical system. 27 states also give consumers the option of switching natural gas companies.

Increasing customer choice and hence reducing prices was one of the stated goals of deregulation. As a result, though, a new form of fraud emerged: phony energy sales.

How Does the Scam Work?

Deregulated energy markets in certain jurisdictions have led to door-to-door sales pitches from electricity suppliers. Distributors make house calls to inform customers that they are free to pick their electricity supplier and to gauge interest in making a change.

There are circumstances in which giving in to this request is a smart decision. For example, you may purchase renewable energy for your house without the hassle of installing solar panels, or you can get power at a cheaper price per kilowatt-hour (kWh) than your utility charges.

How to Recognize a Scam

In order to avoid falling victim to this scam, you should never answer the door to a stranger, even if they are wearing a uniform purporting to be from the electricity company. However, some energy door-to-door salesmen are legitimate and may even be able to provide you with a decent price. Learn how to identify legitimate salesmen from con artists by following these guidelines.

  • In other words, they refuse to reveal their true identities. They identify themselves as representatives of “the power company” or “your local power company,” but they never reveal their true identity. Or perhaps they say they’re from the local utility, but they have no identification to show for it.
  • There was a request for the bill. Those that are actually affiliated with your utility company will already be aware of the charges you’ve racked up. Because they are the ones responsible for sending it. They need not knock on your door to get a copy if they can just access it online.
  • They have been known to resort to extreme measures. They come clean about being salesmen, but then pressure you into making a service change without reading the fine print. They can stress how urgent it is that you sign the paperwork, or imply that you don’t have a say in the matter.

What Should You Do?

Here are some ways to avoid falling victim to this con:

  • Always verify identification. The presence of a corporate emblem on a clipboard or a uniform is no guarantee that the person you’re speaking with is an employee of your local utility. Inquire to see picture identification, such as a badge or card. They should have proper identification if they represent the public utility.
  • In no circumstances should you ever display your bill. Never provide your utility bill to anyone, not even someone you think is from the utility company. Don’t give out your SSN, credit card, or bank account details, or any other sensitive personal information.
  • Constantly Reviewing Agreements Is Essential. Read the full contract, including the fine print, before signing it if you decide to transfer electricity suppliers. Investigate the per-kilowatt-hour pricing, the length of time the rate will be in effect, what will happen after the promotional offer expires, and any expenses associated with starting or ending service. Don’t be afraid to close the door in the faces of the salesman if they try to pressure you into signing before you’re ready.
  • You should look into this on your own time. Don’t sit around waiting for a salesperson to knock on your door offering to switch your electricity service. As an alternative, you could look into the various service providers in your region and make a decision based on that. In this way, you may compare the pricing of several service providers and choose the most cost-effective option. For starters, look for “energy choice” with your state’s name on Google or check out the website of your state’s board of public utilities.

Scams involving power outages

In a phishing scam known as a power shutdown scam, hackers pretend as employees of a firm you do business with in order to trick you into giving them money. Pretending to be from the power company and threatening to cut off your electricity is one tactic they use to scam money out of you.

How Does the Scam Work?

There are several variations on this con. If you haven’t paid your electric bill, the utility company could threaten to cut off your electricity in an email that seems like it came from them. The same information can also be sent with a phone call or a knock on the door.

The following portion of the con, however, is consistent: The crooks threaten urgent service termination unless quick payment is made. It’s possible that they’ll ask for your financial details. It’s possible they’ll demand untraceable payment methods like a wire transfer, a prepaid debit card like Green Dot, a gift card, or cryptocurrencies. Con artists who knock on your house could even demand immediate payment in cash.

As reported by ABC TV in 2016, a door-to-door con artist was caught on tape by a West Palm Beach, Florida, news crew. He kept calling a woman at her house about an “unpaid bill,” but he wouldn’t produce his ID and kept making up excuses when she pressed him. The offender became violent toward one of the reporters when he noticed they were following him.

How to Recognize a Scam

Naturally, actual power providers may occasionally contact you if your payment is late, and they will turn off your electricity if you fail to pay in a timely manner. There are, however, a number of telltale signs that separate a scam from a genuine request.

  • Actually, They Knock on Your Door. You should know straight away that it’s a con if someone knocks on your home demanding money. The legitimate utility provider would never send a worker to your house without giving you advance notice. They will often send a written notice of a payment delay.
  • They Request Payment Right Away. If your bill is over late, a company may contact to remind you, but they will never demand payment over the phone. They will instead direct you to the company’s website or another normal payment method.
  • In exchange, they ask that your payment be made in a way that cannot be tracked. The request for an unusual form of payment, such as a wire transfer or prepaid debit card, should also raise suspicions. No utility provider would ever require this type of payment, and the vast majority of them don’t even take it. To now, only GridPlus, a Texas-based electricity provider, allows bitcoin payments everywhere in the United States.
  • The person is hostile or angry. Even if they are contacting you about an outstanding account, genuine staff from your power provider should keep their cool and act professionally. A red flag that an email or phone call is from a scammer is if the sender or caller adopts an aggressive or threatening tone.
  • Having paid the bill is a given. You should be wary of anyone claiming a bill is overdue after you’ve already paid it. Sure, the utility might have made a mistake, but it’s also possible that this is a hoax.
  • There have been no prior warnings sent to you. Even if the utility provider never received payment, they cannot abruptly turn off your service. Before turning off your electricity, they are required to give you many notices detailing the amount you owe and providing you a deadline by which you must pay it. It’s probably a fraud if this is the first time you’ve heard that your payment is late.

What Should You Do?

Be sure to pay your energy bill in full before it is shut off if you are genuinely behind on payments. The following is what you should do if you receive an email, phone call, or unexpected person threatening to turn off your electricity:

  • You Can’t Depend on Caller ID. However, just because a call looks to be coming from a legitimate power business doesn’t mean it is. Spammers can now make their calls appear to originate from whatever number they want thanks to call spoofing technology.
  • Withhold All Assistance from Them. Don’t give out personal or financial information over the phone or over email, even if you believe the call or email could be authentic. This is crucial if you’re being requested to pay with a method that can’t be tracked, such as bitcoin, a wire transfer, or a prepaid debit card. You can forget about getting your money back once you’ve made a payment in this manner.
  • Please Review Your Account Information. Don’t assume that you aren’t overdue on your power payment; call the service provider if you have doubts. To see how things are doing with your account, you may either visit the site or give the firm a call. Be careful to contact the firm using the correct means, though, such as the actual website or phone number listed on your statement. A fake website that looks like the legitimate utility website awaits you if you click on a link in an email. In a similar vein, con artists may provide you a phone number that sounds just like the actual utility’s, but directs you to a bogus website instead.

Scams involving power restoration

Similar to the power-cutting scam, but with the victim’s electricity restored instead. The fraudsters don’t actually threaten to cut off your power; instead, they offer to restore it for you in exchange for a charge.

How Does the Scam Work?

This con is prevalent after a natural disaster causes a power loss in an area. Con artists posing as electric company employees knock on doors and offer to fix your power for a flat fee. If you still use a traditional landline phone, which can function without electricity, you may also be targeted by fraudsters.

Scammers may demand payment to restore power to your home. Other times, they say electricity will be restored eventually, but charging a charge for “rapid service restoration” will ensure a quicker turnaround time.

But in actuality, they aren’t even affiliated with the utility. They are unable and unwilling to restore your power. Don’t give them any more of your money; they’ll just take it and run.

How to Recognize a Scam

To put it simply, this is straightforward. For the avoidance of doubt, please assume that any and all promises to restore your electricity for a charge are fraudulent. The legitimate utility provider is the only one that can fix your electricity for free. You can’t speed things up by paying more money.

What Should You Do?

It’s just as simple to do that as well, by closing the door or ending the call. Don’t even think about inquiring further. Don’t waste your time on it; it’s obviously a hoax.

Scams Regarding Replacement and Repair

Your actual electric provider may need to visit your home on occasion to repair or replace components like your electric meter. Cons will use this information to trick you into paying for upgraded infrastructure by pretending to be utility staff.

How Does the Scam Work?

This con often takes place over the phone. If you get a call from someone claiming to be from the power company and informing you that they need to make adjustments to your home’s machinery, you should be suspicious. They can say they need to fix your electric meter or install a new one, or they might offer to upgrade you to a smart meter.

Callers want payment in advance for this “urgent” service. They might threaten to turn off your power unless you pay up.

How to Recognize a Scam

The scammers behind certain iterations of this phone call will go to extraordinary measures to make it appear like they are calling from a real company. Spoofed phone numbers are used by con artists who then try to schedule an installation appointment and provide a phony call-back number.

Nonetheless, there are several indicators that might help you determine if the call is legitimate or not. Unless you report the meter as broken, your actual utility provider is unlikely to repair it. They will notify you in advance if they need to replace or improve it. 

Finally, any fees associated with the new appliances will be included in your monthly electricity statement rather than being requested separately.

What Should You Do?

Think of it like you would any other fraud. Never give out personal information or pay a price over the phone. If you’re unsure whether or not the alert is genuine, you should get in touch with the relevant service provider. Instead of using a call-back number supplied over the phone, use the company’s official number or go online.

Scams involving Overpayments

In this con, the utility provider calls to pretend you’ve overpaid on your payment and they need to refund the difference. You can get your money back with only the click of a button.

How Does the Scam Work?

If you comply with the prompt and hit the button, you’ll be linked to a service that will ask for your financial details, such as your account or card number. The electric company claims they need this information so that they may electronically transfer your reimbursement.

Once fraudsters obtain your account information, though, they will start transferring funds out of your account rather than into it. Scammers may also seek for sensitive information like Social Security numbers in order to steal victims’ identities.

You may also be offered a discount on future payments rather than a direct refund in a different variation of this scam. The common practice, however, is to suggest that you move to a different utility company for your energy or gas needs. You could have to pay more for gas or electricity than you do today, or even worse, have to pay two separate bills.

How to Recognize a Scam

The power provider is not likely to issue a refund check if you accidentally overpay your bill. Instead, the overpayment would be reflected as a credit on your account and applied to the subsequent statement. Not only that, but doing so wouldn’t necessitate any effort on your behalf.

What Should You Do?

Don’t answer the phone if you get a call like this. Don’t even bother pressing a number if you get one of these calls; doing so might lead to additional spam calls in the future. Drop the call and contact your actual utility provider to report the fraud.

You may also use this time to inquire as to whether or not you have really overpaid your payment, but you shouldn’t be astonished if you haven’t.

Fake Federal Programs

It’s a horrible con that takes advantage of folks who are already struggling financially. Swindlers will tell victims they can assist them pay their utility bills, but then take their money or use their personal information to commit identity theft.

How Does the Scam Work?

Those trying to defraud you will claim to represent a “special federal program” that will assist pay for your utility costs. They could contact you by phone, email, text message, social media, or even a personal visit to your home. They also put out flyers in low-income areas where they believe individuals may be in need of assistance.

They will try to pry information out of you after they have you on the hook. Information about yourself, such as your name, address, and Social Security number, is requested throughout the registration process for the program.

The next stage, when they obtain that information, is to steal your money. They advise that, going forward, you open a new account in which to deposit your energy bill payments rather than paying them to the company directly. They’ll give you a fake bank’s routing number to use for transactions, then sit back and pocket all the money you deposit there.

While this is happening, your actual utility bills are likely going unpaid, and you won’t find out about it until you receive late warnings from your energy company.

How to Recognize a Scam

As a matter of fact, there is no specific federal program that assists customers with power bill payments. While the federal government provides financing for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), the program is administered on a state level.

The California Alternate Rates for Energy (CARE) Fund and the New Jersey Universal Service Fund are two examples of state-specific initiatives designed to reduce the financial burden of utility bills (USF). Some providers of essential services also provide payment assistance programs for consumers who are having problems making their monthly bill payments.

But none of these applications market their offerings by cold phoning, unsolicited emails, or door-to-door visits. They already have a hard enough time satisfying the demands of their current clientele without actively seeking new ones. Any energy aid program that aggressively seeks out new clients is likely to be fraudulent.

What Should You Do?

Do not respond to a message claiming to be from a government energy aid program requesting personal information. Instead, you should check out Benefits.gov to learn more about legal energy assistance programs in your state. Additionally, you may visit the website of your utility provider to learn more about any assistance programs they may provide with your bills.

Impersonators from Utility Companies

Most utility company scams involve attempts to deceive you into parting with money or private information. On the other hand, some crooks take a more direct approach, pretending to be utility personnel so they may get access to your house and steal your belongings.

How Does The Scam Work?

Robbers frequently pose as employees of your energy provider and knock on your home in company uniforms. They may claim they need to check your electric meter or fuse box to gain entry to your home. Once inside, they’ll find a method to divert your attention while they look for valuables to take.

In one case documented by the New York Post in 2014, two imposter Con Edison personnel gained entry to an elderly citizen’s house by claiming they needed to inspect the electrical panel. They then instructed him to wait in the basement with the light on and observe any color shifts.

During that time, they raced upstairs, ransacked the residence, and made off with $70,000 in cash stashed in a dresser drawer. WXYZ Detroit also reported on another incident in which a bogus utility technician forced his way into a house and threatened the owner with a revolver.

One member of the team will pose as a diversion while the other goes about searching for goods. A representative may want to examine your bill and provide suggestions for cutting costs. According to Ohio’s FirstEnergy Corp., two crooks pretended to be utility workers while cutting down trees. While one of them strolled about the property with the owner inspecting the trees, the other ransacked the place.

How to Recognize a Scam

As was previously said, utility providers almost never send someone to your home without first contacting you. No one wants to send workers to an empty house. A qualified technician will be sent to your house at your scheduled appointment time to inspect or make any necessary repairs. Despite the appearance of their clothing, anyone who turns up unexpectedly and refuses to provide identification is likely to be a fake.

What Should You Do?

What to do if an unexpected visitor, claiming to be from your utility provider, comes up:

  • Ask for ID. A true utility company worker will have an official form of ID that includes a photo. Simply request to see it. Make the worker wait outside while you phone the utility to verify their identity if they refuse to present proper identification or produce an ID that doesn’t appear legitimate.
  • Don’t Let Them In. Don’t let anybody enter your home unless you’ve confirmed they’re indeed from the utility company. Don’t take them outside if you have to leave the house unattended. It’s a good idea to lock the door if you feel uneasy inside.
  • Don’t Show Your Bill. If the so-called utility staff ask to view your bill or for any other sensitive information, don’t give it to them. Your genuine utility provider already has all the personal information about you that it requires.

Bottom Line

Get in touch with the authorities if you think you’ve been the victim of one of these utility scams. There are many others in your shoes, so don’t feel bad about falling for a con. Six out of seven persons who the ABC News reporter visited while posing as a utility worker let him into their homes without requiring identification.

Congratulations if you’ve avoided falling for a con. You have far more wisdom than the typical house owner. Though it may be too late to save yourself, you may still help others by alerting the authorities and your utility company to the thefts. They will be better able to stop the scammers before they can victimize more of your neighbors if they have more information about these schemes.

The FTC’s Complaint Assistant can help you file a formal complaint, and you can also contact the attorney general’s office in your state. The FTC will not be able to directly address your concerns, but it may be able to utilize the data you submit in an inquiry. By reporting these scams, you’ll be helping the FTC issue Scam Alerts to the public.

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