Within the greater context of impersonation scams, public utility scams deserve special mention for their cruelty and harmfulness.
How It Works
The fraudster will usually contact his victim with a phone call, claiming to be an officer or employee of the electrical company, water supplier, gas, or other vital public utility. Or the scammer will call or actually show up in person and knock on your door. Either way, the threats start right away. You’re behind on your payments. You’d better pay up right away or we’ll shut off your power (or water or gas or whatever). You wouldn’t want that, would you?
But not to worry; all your problems will disappear in a flash if you just send him some money immediately. Don’t stop to think, don’t do anything at all before you give him all the money he demands. And invariably, he will require you to use some sort of unusual payment method, such as gift cards, cryptocurrency, or bank wire transfer.
The calls are expertly timed for optimal effect. Peak heating and peak air conditioning seasons are best, for example, for inducing maximum panic. The panic is critical from the point of view of the scammer to ensure that you are primed for snap decisions with minimal thinking, while he positions himself as both a person of authority who can hurt you, as well as a trusted source guiding your actions.
Sadly, the victims of utility scams are often the most vulnerable populations, senior citizens in particular. The targeting of the most vulnerable among us is exactly what makes this crime so particularly cruel, as the ones who pay are those who can least afford it.
In response to the growth of these scams, approximately 150 U.S. and Canadian electric, water, and natural gas companies, together with their respective trade associations, have joined a cooperative effort they call Utilities United Against Scams (UUAS). Through initiatives such as an annual Utility Scam Awareness Day and educating their customers, they have succeeded in reducing the number of victims since 2016. In certain areas of the United States, however, there are reports of an increase in the number of utility scams since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in the Carolinas, Ohio and Virginia.
In 2018 utility scams were reported in Australia. In those instances, scammers sent out spoofed emails carrying the logo of telecommunications service providers, as well as gas and electric companies.
How to Protect Yourself
As dangerous as these scams can be, just a few common sense safety measures are all you need to protect yourself from the vast majority of them. You can also check out the tips provided by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission on their page dedicated to these scams, or just follow our tried and true suggestions:
- Never pay your bills using any sort of unusual payment method. Not only is the demand for payment by gift cards, cryptocurrency, prepaid cards, or bank wire transfer a sure sign of a scam, but also those methods offer far fewer consumer protections than credit cards. That’s why the scammers like them so much.
- Never give out any personal information over the phone to any who calls you. Neither your Social Security number nor your bank account information. If the people calling you demand such things, tell them you’ll call back to give it to them, and don’t let them bully you. When you do call back, use only the phone number available publicly, as opposed to any number that they gave you to call.
- Don’t click on links in any email or text message you receive from the utility. If it’s a scam, the links may contain malware or may redirect you to a realistic-looking cloned scam site that will steal your information. Instead, go to the utility’s correct and official website on your own, and only then log in.
If you think you are the victim of a public utility scam, contact the fund recovery experts at MyChargeBack.