Fake Federal Programs
This is a particularly nasty scam that preys on people who are 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 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 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 the needs of the people who are already signed up; 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 of your personal information. Instead, visit Benefits.gov to search for real 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.
Utility Company Imposters
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 a variety of 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 reports on 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, 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 first 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 if they produce an ID that looks unconvincing, make them wait outside while you call the utility to confirm that the worker is legit.
- Don’t Let Them In. Unless you can confirm that 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.
If you’ve fallen victim to any of these utility scams, report the crime to the police. Don’t be embarrassed about admitting that you fell for a con; you’ve got plenty of company. When ABC News sent a reporter to people’s houses disguised as a utility worker, six out of seven homeowners let him in without asking for ID.
If you’ve managed to avoid a scam, good for you; you’re smarter than the average homeowner. However, you can still help others out by reporting the criminals to the local police and your energy provider. The more they know about these scams, the better their chances are of catching the criminals before they can victimize more of your neighbors.
You can also report the crime to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) using its Complaint Assistant tool. The FTC can’t deal with your complaint personally, but it may be able to use the information you provide as part of an investigation. Your information can also help the FTC warn the public about these crimes through its Scam Alerts page.