The phone rings. On the other end of the line is someone claiming to be from the electric company, giving you one final notice of missed payments before they will have to shut off your power. You’re sure that you already paid your bill, but the utility representative sounds legitimate, knows the balances of your last few bills, and is telling you that—unless you make a payment immediately—he will have to cut off your electricity.
While the caller may sound legitimate, fraudsters are increasingly using the threat of shutting off power to scam victims out of hundreds or even thousands of dollars. One consumer who recently contacted Fraud.org lost nearly $3,000 in this type of scam. In the last few months, Fraud.org has seen a significant spike in complaints related to the utility imposter scam. According to a study by Hiya, a phone spam protection company, utility scams rose 109 percent last year.
The scammers’ pitches can be very convincing. In several complaints we received, it appeared that the scammer had personal information on the victim and even information from previous bills. While it’s unclear how they obtain this information, the set-up follows a pattern: the scammer calls and impersonates a utility company representative. He or she may even create an answering service that sounds identical to the actual utility company’s service, urging customers to return an important voicemail messages left by the scammer. The scammer may claim they are providing a courtesy call to inform the utility customer that his or her payment did not go through or that the account has an overdue balance. The solution is always the same: send payment, in a method of the scammer’s choosing, to keep your power from being turned off.
One California consumer who contacted Fraud.org described a man who called claiming to be from her electric company. He told her that “they were turning off my electricity in 45 minutes for non-payment,” even though she thought she had paid her electric bill. The man “knew my information, including the totals of my last three electric bills.” After she insisted that she had already paid her last bill, he explained that it was probably just a routing issue with her bank, and that she should make another payment to avoid having her power turned off. “I was instructed to buy a prepaid MoneyPak card and call him back with the card number,” the consumer wrote. Unfortunately, she only realized that she had been scammed when she went to the bank and verified that her bills had indeed all been paid in full—after she had already made the additional payment via MoneyPak
While being on the receiving end of a utility imposter scam may be scary, there are several steps you can take to protect yourself from this scam:
Call your utility company directly. Utility companies should provide plenty of notice and numerous warnings before turning off a customer’s power. If you receive a call from your utility company threatening to turn your power off, hang up the phone immediately. You should then look up your utility company’s number in the phonebook, at their official website, or on an old bill to ensure that the number you are calling does not belong to a sophisticated scammer. Once you are connected to your actual utility company, you can check your account balance and rectify any billing issues.
Never pay by wire transfer or prepaid cards like MoneyPak or GreenDot. These payment methods are notoriously difficult to trace and are a favorite amongst scammers. If your “utility company” demands payment by one of these method, it is a scam. Utility companies should always accept payments through either a check, bank debit, or credit card.
- Do not give out personal information. Many utility imposters will offer to connect their victims to federal assistance programs or payment plans to help pay their overdue bills. They just need to “verify” their victim’s information. In reality, these scammers may just be trying to gather the information they need to steal your identity. If you suspect something is amiss, always hang up, and call your utility company directly.
Identifying a utility imposter scam is not always easy. If you suspect that you have become a victim, report it immediately. You can file a complaint at Fraud.org via our secure online complaint form. We’ll share your complaint with our network of law enforcement and consumer protection agency partners who can investigate and help put fraudsters behind bars.