Over the summer, you might have heard that President Obama was offering to pay individual’s utility bills through a new federal relief program. Unfortunately, the offer was a hoax and one of the latest utility scams; after obtaining interested bill payers’ social security numbers and bank information, the criminals provided fake bank routing numbers that led to nowhere – as did the trail that investigators attempted to follow to find the individuals responsible for the scam, who obtained the personal data of thousands of individuals.
This utility scam made the news because of its size and the fact that the President’s name became involved, but every day hundreds of people become victims of utility fraud. This means that anyone who pays a bill to a utility company, whether it be telephone, electric, cable, gas, or any other utility services, could be at risk of becoming a victim too. Read on to find out how criminals use utility services in commissioning crimes that compromise your wallet and personal information.
The Most Common Methods of Utility Fraud
Utility fraud takes many shapes. In most cases, the criminals will either impersonate representatives of a utility company or pretend to have an inside line to a discount on utilities, like in the scam discussed above. This is easy for criminals to do because utilities are ubiquitous, and in any given area one utility usually services the majority of customers. Recent examples of classic utility scams taking advantage of this include:
- Impersonators of American Electric Power in Fort Wayne, Indiana threatening to cut off electric service if a certain amount isn’t paid via pre-paid money card – to the impersonators.
- Impersonators of Cobb Electric Power in the southeast region knocking on doors claiming to require a service fee to read utility meters.
- Impersonators of ComEd in the Midwest will team up and dress as Com Ed employees to gain entry to homes. While one impersonator attempts to look busy checking utility connections, the other impersonator steals valuables out of the home.
Clearly, utility fraud happens across the country to victims of all ages and backgrounds. Utility fraud can be very damaging, since victims who believe they are paying a legitimate bill to people who turn out to be mere criminals will still owe the utility companies for services. So how do you protect yourself?
How to Fight Back Against Utility Fraud
As with protecting yourself against other types of fraud, the first rule of thumb for fighting back against utility fraud is to maintain awareness about which utilities you use and what processes these utilities follow in the rare event they do need to access your home, property, or bank account outside of normal circumstances. Remember these tips:
- Employees of legitimate utilities will always drive a marked service vehicle that clearly indicates the utility they work for.
- Employees of legitimate utilities will always be in uniform and will also usually carry picture identification issued by the utility.
- You have a right to refuse a representative of a utility company access to your home or property. If you are suspicious, call the utility company at its 800 number – not any number provided by the individual causing suspicion. If you believe you are in danger, do not call the utility – call 911.
Here are a few other ways to protect yourself against becoming the victim of a utility scam.
- Never pay a bill over the phone unless you initiated the phone call.
- Never pay a bill that is not clearly explained or that you do not fully understand; call the utility at its genuine service number to clarify any issues.
- Do not allow utilities to enter your home; unless you called them, nearly any issue with your service can be fixed outside of the home, where the utilities’ easement ends.