Gas, electric, water and cable are not purchases you regularly think about. At best, they get a moment’s thought as you write a check for them once a month. Maybe they even auto-pay, and you only look at the bill when you review your statement.
Either way, if someone called and said your account was overdue and your service was about to be shut off, it’d be frightening. It might be frightening enough that you’d do whatever they said, just to avoid the dire consequences. And that’s exactly what scammers are counting on.
The Department of Consumer Affairs has warned of a new scam targeting utility customers. A scammer calls and claims that the potential victim is overdue on a utility bill, and that someone is en route to shut the power off. The scammer will direct the victim to go to a nearby drugstore and buy a prepaid debit card. The scammer waits to receive the number on the card and then takes its whole value. Transactions with these cards are difficult to trace, which means getting the money back is next to impossible.
If you’re targeted by one of these scams, it’s important to stay calm. Stand your ground, and don’t give in to threats.
Know your rights
Utility companies just don’t operate like these scammers. No one from a utility company will tell you that your service is going to be shut off in minutes if you don’t pay right now. There are rules and regulations that govern how and under what circumstances companies are permitted to turn off service.
First, they’re required to provide you with a notification of termination. This is a letter identifying the reason, the date and what you can do to prevent this shut-off. This process is cumbersome, so most utility companies won’t send one until you’re more than two payments behind.
Second, turning service off and on is an expensive process for the utility provider. They’re likely to make several attempts to contact you before they start the process of turning off your service. They’re also likely to use multiple contact methods, including phone and mail. Ask for a record of past attempts at contact and check it against your own records. A utility company will be happy to provide this information, as they’d need to keep it for court anyway. A scammer will likely hesitate when asked for details.
Pay it right
Utility companies process hundreds or thousands of payments every day. They have established procedures for securing payments. They will never insist you make a payment through a pre-paid debit card or other means.
In fact, anyone who wants to collect money from you will make it as easy as possible for you to pay them. Always choose a secured means of payment, like your credit or debit card. These cards offer fraud protection and limit your liability if something goes wrong with the transaction.
When it comes to utility companies, First City Credit Union offers automatic bill payment. We’ve set up payment relationships with area utility providers to let you make your payments directly without the trouble of writing a check or the expense of postage stamps. You can make sure you’re current on your bills and save yourself time with automatic bill payment.
See something, say something
If you get a call like this one, hang up. Then, contact the FCC. Using the telephone to demand money is illegal, as is making unsolicited commercial phone calls. Report violations of the no-call registry at complaints.donotcall.gov. You can help make the airwaves safer for everyone!
If you’ve run into payment trouble with utility companies in the past, you can keep the fear that makes these scams work at bay by working ahead on your utility payments. If coming up with the money is a challenge, there are federal and state programs designed to help you keep the lights on. One such program is the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). This program provides utility payment credits for low-income individuals, and they can be applied to past bills as well.
You might also look into programs which average your utility payments. This can avoid the spike in bills that can occur in response to inclement weather and also make budgeting a slightly easier process. This will help ensure you can make a payment every time and avoid being a target for these scams in the first place.
Your Turn: Have you been targeted by a utility scam? How did you handle it? Share your wisdom in the comments!