Avoiding Utility Scams

A scam is designed to trick you into giving away your money, personal details or data by offering an attractive deal or false information.

Common Utility Company Scams to Watch Out For

Power shutoff scams are a type of phishing scam in which hackers pose as representatives of a company you do business with to get money from you. In this case, they pretend to be from the electric company, and their strategy for getting money out of you is threatening to shut off your power.

How the Scam Works

This scam can take several forms. Sometimes, you get an email that looks like it’s from the utility, claiming the company will shut off your power because you haven’t paid your electric bill. In other cases, you get a phone call with the same information or a person shows up at your door.

However, the next part of the scam is always the same: The fraudsters say you must pay your bill immediately to avoid disconnection. They may request your bank or credit card information. They may also ask for payment in a form that’s harder to trace, such as a wire transfer, a prepaid debit card such as Green Dot, a gift card, or even cryptocurrency. Scammers who come to your door may even ask you to pay in cash on the spot.

In 2016, an ABC news team in West Palm Beach, Florida, caught one of these door-to-door scammers on camera. He was pestering a homeowner about her “unpaid bill,” refusing to show ID, and repeatedly changing his story in response to her questions. When the criminal realized reporters were following him, he physically assaulted one of them before running away.

How to Tell It’s a Scam

Of course, real power companies do sometimes contact you if your bill is late, and they can cut off your power if you fall too far behind. However, there are several ways to tell a scam from a legitimate request.

  • They Come to Your Door. If someone shows up at your door to demand money, that should tip you off right away that it’s a scam. Your real utility company will not send someone to your home without alerting you beforehand. If your payment is late, they’ll usually notify you in writing.
  • They Demand Immediate Payment. Some companies may call you to let you know your bill is past due, but they’ll never insist you pay immediately over the phone. Instead, they’ll tell you how to pay your bill through the company website or some other standard channel.
  • They Request an Untraceable Payment. Another red flag is asking for payment by wire transfer or prepaid debit card. Most utilities don’t even accept these payment forms, and no utility will ever insist on them. So far, only one U.S. power company, GridPlus, accepts payment in cryptocurrency, and that’s only in certain parts of Texas.
  • They’re Angry or Threatening. Real representatives from your power company should be calm and professional, even if they’re calling you about an unpaid bill. If the email or the person on the phone takes a hostile or threatening tone, they’re probably a scammer.
  • You Know You Paid Your Bill. If you know you already paid your bill, you should be suspicious of anyone telling you it’s past due. Yes, it could be a mistake on the utility’s part, but it could also be a scam.
  • You’ve Received No Prior Notices. Even if the power company somehow never got your payment, they can’t simply cut off your electricity without warning. They have to send you a series of notices first, telling you about the overdue bill and giving you a date to pay it before they shut off your power. If this is the first time you’ve heard about your payment being late, it’s probably a scam.

What to Do

If you actually are behind on your electric bill, make sure you pay it before your power gets cut off. If you get an email, phone call, or visitor threatening to cut off your electricity, here’s what to do:

  • Don’t Trust Your Caller ID. Even if the call appears to come from the real electric company, that’s no proof it’s legit. These days, call spoofing software makes it easy for spammers to make a call appear to come from any number they want.
  • Don’t Give Them Anything. Even if you think a call or email might be legitimate, don’t hand out any payment information or any other personal information. This is especially important if you’re asked for an untraceable form of payment such as cryptocurrency, wire transfer, or a prepaid debit card. Once you’ve made a payment in this way, it’s almost impossible to get the money back.
  • Check Your Account. If you’re concerned you may really be behind on your electric bill, contact the utility to check. You can log in to your account on the company’s website or call its customer service number to check your account status. However, make sure you’re using the company’s real website or phone number as shown on your bill. If you click a link in an email, it’s likely to take you to a spoofed website that may look like the utility’s real site. Likewise, phone scammers sometimes tell you to call them back at a fake phone number that uses a replica of the real energy company’s recorded welcome message.

A power restoration scam is the reverse of a power shutoff scam. Instead of threatening to shut off your electricity, the scammers offer to help you get it back — for a fee.

How the Scam Works

This scam appears in neighborhoods where there’s a power outage due to a storm or other natural disaster. Scammers dressed as electric company workers go from door to door, offering to restore your power for a one-time payment. Fraudsters may also contact you by phone if you have an old-fashioned landline that works without power.

Sometimes, the scammers say you must pay a fee to get your electric service back. Other times, they say you’ll get your power back eventually, but you can pay a fee for an “express service restoration” to get it back faster.

In reality, these people don’t work for the power company. They can’t and won’t get your electricity back. All they will do is take your money and run.

How to Tell It’s a Scam

This is an easy one. Any time anyone offers to restore your power for a fee, it’s a scam, period. Only the real utility company can restore your electric service, and they have to do it for free. Paying a fee won’t get it done any faster.

What to Do

That’s easy too: Just shut the door or hang up on the caller. Don’t even bother to ask questions. It’s definitely a scam, so don’t waste a minute of your time on it.

Occasionally, your real electric utility needs to make repairs or replacements to equipment in your house, such as your electric meter. Scammers take advantage of this fact by posing as utility workers and trying to charge you a fee for new equipment.

How the Scam Works

This scam usually occurs by phone. Someone claiming to be from the power company calls you and says they need to make some changes to the equipment in your home. They may claim they need to make repairs, replace your electric meter, or upgrade you to a new smart meter.

The callers then demand upfront payment for this “necessary” service. If you refuse to pay, they may threaten to cut off your electricity.

How to Tell It’s a Scam

Some versions of this phone scam go to great lengths to make the call look legitimate. Scammers may call you from a spoofed number, set up an appointment for the installation, and give you a fake call-back number.

However, there are a few ways to tell if the call is a fraud. Your real utility provider usually won’t replace your meter unless you report it’s damaged. If they do need to replace or upgrade it, they’ll contact you ahead of time to let you know. Finally, if there’s any charge for the new equipment, they’ll simply add it to your electric bill rather than asking for a separate payment.

What to Do

Treat this like any other scam. Don’t pay a fee or give out any sensitive information over the phone. If you think the message might be legitimate, contact your utility to check. Make sure to call its official number or visit its website, rather than using a call-back number provided to you over the phone.

In this scam, you get a call saying you’ve paid too much on your utility bill, and the utility company is calling to put things right. All you have to do is push a button to get a cash refund.

How the Scam Works

If you push the button as requested, you’re connected to someone who asks for either your bank account information or your credit card number. Supposedly, this is so the utility can send your refund directly to your account. But in reality, once scammers have your account number, they’ll start directing money out of your account, not into it. Sometimes, the scammers also ask for personal information, such as an SSN they can use for identity theft.

In another version of this scam, the fraudsters promise you a discount on future bills rather than an immediate refund. But what they usually do instead is try to switch you to a different electricity or gas provider. You could end up paying more for gas or electricity than you do now — or worse, paying bills to two different providers.

How to Tell It’s a Scam

If you really did overpay your utility bill, it’s doubtful the utility company would send you a cash refund. Instead, it would probably list the overpayment as a credit on your account and deduct it automatically from your next bill. And it wouldn’t require any action on your part to do so.

What to Do

If you get a call like this, simply hang up. Don’t even press a number when the call instructs you to; if you do, you could be letting yourself in for more unwanted robocalls in the future. Instead, hang up and call your real utility company to report the scam. You can also take the opportunity to ask if you really did overpay your bill — but don’t be surprised if the answer is no.

This is a particularly nasty scam that preys on people struggling to get by on a tight budget. The scammers offer them help with their utility bills, but instead, they either steal their money or seize their personal information for purposes of identity theft.

How the Scam Works

Scammers contact you to tell you about a “special federal program” that can help cover the cost of your energy bills. They may reach out to you in several different ways, including phone calls, emails, text messages, social media, and door-to-door visits. They also post fliers in low-income neighborhoods where they think people are likely to need help.

Once they have you on the hook, they start trying to get information out of you. They tell you that to sign up for the program, you’ll have to provide some personal information, such as your name, address, and SSN.

Once they have that info, they move on to the final step: getting their hands directly on your money. They tell you that in the future when you get your electric bill, you should direct your payment into a new account instead of sending it to the utility. They provide you with a phony bank routing number to use for your payments, then sit back and collect all the money you pay into that account.

Meanwhile, your real utility bills are going unpaid, and you probably won’t realize it until you start getting overdue notices from your utility.

How to Tell It’s a Scam

In reality, there is no federal program to help users pay utility bills — at least, not exactly. The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, receives federal funding, but it’s run at the state level. Some states also have their own separate funds to help with energy bills, such as California Alternate Rates for Energy (CARE) and New Jersey’s Universal Service Fund (USF). In addition, some utility companies offer payment assistance programs to help customers who have trouble paying their bills.

However, none of these programs advertise their services by calling or emailing people randomly or knocking on doors. Most of them have enough trouble meeting existing customers’ needs; they certainly don’t have to go looking for more customers. Any energy assistance plan that’s actively seeking out customers is most likely a scam.

What to Do

If you get a message about an energy assistance program, don’t sign up for it or give out any personal information. Instead, visit Benefits.gov to search for legitimate energy assistance programs in your state. You can also check out your utility company’s website to see if it offers any programs to help you with your bills.

Most utility company scams work by tricking you into handing over your cash or your personal information. However, some criminals take a more direct approach: They pose as utility company workers to get into your home, then steal your stuff.

How the Scam Works

Criminals show up at your door, often wearing a uniform with your energy utility’s logo on it. They use several tricks to get you to let them into your house, such as saying they need to inspect your fuse box or electric meter. Once they’re inside, they find some way to keep you busy while they search for things to steal.

For example, the New York Post reported a 2014 case in which two fake Con Edison workers got into a senior citizen’s home by telling him they needed to check the fuse box. They then plugged in a light and told him to wait in the basement and watch to see if it changed color. Meanwhile, they ran upstairs, searched the house, and made off with $70,000 in cash hidden in a dresser drawer. In another case reported by WXYZ Detroit, a phony utility worker pushed his way into a home and held the homeowner at gunpoint.

Often, these criminals work in pairs so that one of them can keep you distracted while the other looks for valuables. For instance, they may ask to see your bill and then talk to you about ways to lower it. In a version of the scam described by FirstEnergy Corp. of Ohio, two criminals posed as tree trimmers working for the utility. One of them walked the property with the homeowner examining the trees, while the other looted the home.

How to Tell It’s a Scam

As noted above, utility companies rarely send someone to your door without contacting you ahead of time. They don’t want to waste their employees’ time by sending them to a home that might be empty. If they need to examine or repair anything inside your home, they will make an appointment and send out a worker with identification. Anyone who shows up unannounced and refuses to show a photo ID is probably a fake, even if the uniform they’re wearing looks real.

What to Do

If someone shows up without warning claiming to be from your utility company, here’s what to do:

  • Ask for ID. A real utility company worker will have an official form of ID that includes a photo. Ask to see it. If the worker won’t show it or produces an ID that looks unconvincing, make them wait outside while you call the utility to confirm the worker is legit.
  • Don’t Let Them In. Unless you can verify the person you’re talking to is a real utility worker, don’t let them into your house. Also, don’t leave the house unattended to go outside with them. If you feel at all unsafe, shut the door and lock it.
  • Don’t Show Your Bill. If the so-called utility workers ask to see your bill or for any other personal information, don’t give it to them. Your real utility company already has all the personal information about you that it needs.