Am I Being Scammed? Types of Electric Utility Scams
Unfortunately, fraudsters and scammers have an unrivaled determination to exploit unsuspecting United States citizens. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported receiving almost 3 million scam reports in 2021. Scammers are savvy and constantly find new ways to trick their victims.
We want to keep members safe regarding all things electricity, so we're going to focus on the utility and electrical service scams in this article. As a member-owner, you can trust your local electric cooperative to act in your best interest. Rural electric cooperatives hold themselves to high professional and ethical standards.
Keep reading to learn more about the types of utility scams, the signs of a scam and what you can do to combat fraudulent individuals.
Why Do Criminals Use Utility Scams?
How do these scammers trick everyday consumers into thinking they represent an electric utility, and why do they choose to go this route?
Electricity is essential to everyday life. Whether you need it to power your business or your home, electricity keeps everything running. It's a necessity for the average person, which makes it a desirable target for scammers who want to make a quick buck.
Here are some of the most common ways that scammers try to take advantage of utility customers:
Phone Utility Scams
How They Work
According to the FTC, phone scams come in many forms but tend to have the same two endings; they either promise to give you something or threaten to take something away.
Many phone scams start with a robocall designed to direct you to a live fraudster. Either way, the fraudulent party will call you under the guise of your electric cooperative. They will request money, financial information or personal data to correct a "problem" they found with your account.
A few common scripts include:
- "You overpaid on your electric bill." The scammer will say you've paid more than you should have on your utility bill, and they need your bank or other financial information to refund your money.
- "You owe money on your electric bill." The scammer will say that you are behind on your electric bill and that you can remedy this by providing financial information or paying via a gift card, money wire or cryptocurrency.
- "We will cut your electric service if you don't pay us." Similar to the script above, the scammer will say you are behind on payments and threaten to shut off your business or home's electrical service if you don't pay what they ask.
- "We can offer you a special rate on your electric bill." The scammer will try to offer you a "discount" on your electric bill and will tell you to pay on the spot to get this new rate.
Unlike other scams, utility scams may sound very legitimate and can catch you off guard if you don't know what to look for when you get a call. Scammers use urgency to prey on your emotions. They want to create a high-leverage situation to get you into their trap.
Signs to Look For
- Phone scammers will try to keep you on the line as long as possible. The best way to keep you inside the scam is by keeping you on the phone. You're less likely to fall for it if you have to hang up or can call for help before sending money.
- Phone scammers will call unannounced without any previous official contact, like a letter of concern from your electric utility. If your bill is overdue or there are other serious concerns, you will most likely receive a letter from your electric cooperative with a cutoff date and a phone number you can call to settle the problem.
- Phone scammers will ask for personal and financial information over the phone. You should never provide any information over the phone to anyone calling you on "behalf of a utility," like your Social Security Number, credit card number or banking information. If your financial information has changed, you should visit your local cooperative's official website to access your account online, call the number listed on your last energy statement or visit your cooperative's office during business hours.
- Phone scammers may use a threatening or harsh tone to get you to do what they want. Cooperative representatives will always maintain a courteous and professional tone when talking over the phone and won't use threats to force payment.
- Phone scammers will ask for payments that are difficult to trace, like gift cards, money wires or cryptocurrency. According to the FTC, about 1-in-4 individuals who report losing money to fraud say it happened with a gift card. If someone calls requesting any of these payments, they are not a legitimate utility.
Remember, even if the caller ID looks legitimate, scammers can use software that "spoofs" phone numbers and caller ID names. These individuals are cunning, and they will try to walk you through the scam step-by-step.
What You Can Do to Prevent These Scams
- Hang up. If something feels off, it's best to hang up. The longer you stay on the line, the more likely you are to give the scammer what they want.
- Report the scam. You can visit the Federal Trade Commission or Better Business Bureau to report the scam call. While it may feel insignificant, these reports can go a long way to helping these organizations shut down widespread scams.
- Call your electric cooperative. If you receive a call regarding your electric service or payments, hang up and call the cooperative's official number on your electric bill to find out if the problem is legitimate. In most cases, it won't be, but you can still report the scam to your cooperative and let them know that scammers are targeting their members.
In-Person Utility Scams
While phones are a prevalent avenue for utility scams, some fraudsters may try to approach you in person to impersonate a line worker, salesperson or representative for your utility. These encounters can be especially frightening, but there are ways to detect and avoid these scams.
How They Work
A scammer will approach your home or place of business. Some common scripts include:
- "I'm here to inspect, repair or update a component of your home's electric system." The fraudster will claim to be at your home or business to repair your home's meter, electric panel or another component that requires them to come inside your home.
- "I'm here to offer you a better rate on your electric bill through a discount or federal program." Many scammers claim to have a way to help you save on your bill that requires a down payment on that day.
- "I'm here to correct a billing issue." A person impersonating a utility representative may say they are at your home to correct a problem with your electric bill and ask to see your last bill to fix it.
Signs to Look For
- The individual doesn't have an official ID from your cooperative or employee uniform. Anyone who comes to your home on behalf of your cooperative should have an official employee ID and other credentials.
- The individual asks for your last electric bill. Your utility should have all of your payment information on file. Never show your utility bill to someone who shows up at your door, as it could reveal personal information that they could exploit.
- Your cooperative didn't notify you in advance. Most of the time, an electrician or lineworker won't come to your home unless you call the cooperative to notify them of a problem. If your cooperative is sending someone to your location, they will contact you to schedule an appointment.
- They are pushy or aggressive. Like phone scams, many of these individuals will try to get what they want by using an aggressive tone. Again, cooperative representatives will always be professional and courteous when talking with you in person.
What You Can Do to Prevent These Scams
- Ask to see a form of identification. If the individual at your door is legitimate, they should have an ID from your local cooperative.
- Don't let anyone in unless you're sure they're supposed to be at your home. You can tell them that you are verifying they are scheduled to be there. They should be amicable to your request if they are a legitimate cooperative employee.
- Never show your electric bill to someone at the door. No one from your electric cooperative should need your bill. Your cooperative already has all of the necessary information for your account on file.
Email Phishing and Text Smishing Utility Scams
No, we haven't made up either of the words in the heading above. Phishing and smishing scams are ways that scammers try to gather sensitive information from you via a link in an email or text message. While they can come in many forms, they may pose as your utility to appear more credible.
How They Work
The scammer will send you an email or text message containing a link to a fake website that may look similar to your local cooperative's. These sites will ask you to verify your account with your username, password, SSN, credit card number or other sensitive info. From there, a scammer can steal your identity or use your banking information to access your bank account.
Signs to Look For
- Misspelled words or wonky capitalization. Many phishing emails and smishing texts have misspelled words or use excessive capitalization in the message. Communications from your local cooperative will be well-written and avoid grammatical errors.
- Suspicious email addresses. Phishing email addresses don't match up with the message. An email address from a scammer will seem random and won't match cooperative addresses.
- Links that don't match your cooperative's URL. Suspicious links are usually randomly generated or use a URL shortener. It's best to avoid clicking URLs in messages from any unverified email addresses or phone numbers.
- Subject lines or text messages that sound threatening or request you take immediate action. Similar to phone and in-person scams, email scammers usually try to prey on a feeling of urgency to pull you into a scam. Legitimate emails from your cooperative won't use coercive language.
How to Avoid These Scams
- Don't click the link. It's best to avoid clicking any unverified URLs you receive in an email or text message.
- Only submit information on your cooperative's official website. Always check the URL entry bar on your browser for the lock icon to ensure it's a secured website.
- Call your cooperative if you have any questions. When you receive a text message or email you feel unsure about, call your local cooperative to ask if it is legitimate. If not, it's a perfect opportunity to report the scam.
What To Do If You've Been Scammed
If you have fallen victim to a scam, it can be embarrassing, emotionally draining and financially damaging. The important thing to do is to talk with someone about it. Whether it's a family member, friend or local authorities, talking with someone about the scam can help you recover and avoid future exploits. You shouldn't be ashamed or embarrassed. Scams are common and continue when people don't speak up and report what happened to them.
Here are a few other ways you can move forward after a utility scam:
- Contact your bank, credit card company or other financial institution tied to the transaction. Find the contact information for the means used to complete the transaction. If reported fast enough, there is a possibility that the transaction can be reversed. Even if the transaction is final, you should report the fraud to the company to alert them of future scams.
- Contact the police. Reporting the scam to your local authorities can help them in pursuit of future cases.
- Change your password. If any online account information was stolen, change your password to avoid further misuse from the scammer.
- Visit IdentityTheft.gov. If your Social Security Number or other highly-sensitive information was stolen by a scam artist, you need a starting point to recover. IdentityTheft.gov exists for you to report the scam and begin the identity recovery process.
- Contact your local cooperative. Your cooperative will let you know if there is anything you need to do to straighten out your account after a scam. Letting your cooperative know about a utility scam can also help them identify potential threats in the future.
Stay Safe and Contact Your Local Electric Cooperative
While utility scams can be scary, remember that your local cooperative is one call away. If a phone call, message or visit you receive seems suspicious, don't hesitate to reach out to your local cooperative using the phone number listed on their official website or your utility bill. Find your local cooperative's website here.
For more great electrical safety content, visit our blog and safety pages.