Updated July 24, 2019: Scams always seem obvious after the fact. Scammers are smart: they know their story doesn’t always have to make sense. It just has to scare or fool their mark into believing that the scammer is the only one who can help them.
Emotional manipulation is easy when it comes to your utilities. Utilities are literally your lifeline: electricity keeps your food cold and your lights on, gas heats your food and water and apartment. Without them, you can’t live a normal life.
These three scams all feature some sort of emotional manipulation. Want to avoid being the victim? We tell you the tell-tale signs of a scam so you can outsmart the scammers.
The ol’ ESCO switcheroo
A lot of people don’t know that, in some states, you can choose who provides your electricity and gas. The idea behind this is that consumers can choose companies who provide lower rates or source their power from renewable resources.
Instead, consumers are being tricked into paying even higher rates for electricity. How does the scam work? Companies hire salespeople to knock on your door and tell you that they can save you money on your electricity bill. They’ll ask to see your electricity bill so they can point out all the ways they can help you save.
Of course, they’re not trying to help you save. A lot of times, these ESCOs will advertise low introductory rates before they jack up the price months later. Sometimes, they’re just lying to you. The worst part? You don’t even have to agree to anything - if they see your account number, they can take it and switch you to a different ESCO without your permission.
The second worst part? Most of these salespeople don’t know they’re scammers. Companies lie to them and make them believe that they’re actually helping people.
Another variation on this scam has people calling you instead of coming to your door.
Not every ESCO is a scam. We talked to Choose Energy about their ESCO comparison service and discovered just how much money you could save on your electricity bill.
Avoid the scam: If someone comes up to your door and asks to see your electricity bill, do not give it to them under any circumstances. Politely refuse and close the door. If you live in an apartment building and have a building manager, alert to them to the scammer so that they can escort them out of the building.
If someone calls you claiming they can lower your electricity bill if you just give them your account number, do not give them your account number.
(You can [legally] lower your bills by doing this.)
Someone calls you up and tells you that you’re behind on your bills. If you don’t pay up now, they’re going to shut off your electricity. They ask you to give them a credit card number, or preferably, the account and routing number for your bank account.
This scam has been around for years, but it works because it scares people into action before they can think twice.
Most utility companies will never call you on the phone in order to inform you that your power is being shut off. They prefer to communicate by mail. And don’t be fooled by the caller ID: scammers can spoof their phone number into looking like it’s from your state, even if they’re in another part of the country or abroad.
Avoid the scam: If someone calls you on the phone and says your electricity or gas is being turned off, hang up the phone immediately and alert local authorities of criminal activity. Contact your utility company’s billing department to confirm you’re in good standing and to alert them of the scam.
Utility outages are a drag. Severe weather can knock out your power, your gas, your internet and cable for days on end. (Here's what you need to know about protecting your home in severe weather.)
Now imagine that in the middle of your next outage, someone knocks on your door and offers to reconnect your utilities for a cash fee. You want your utilities back as soon as possible, and they’re wearing a company uniform, so of course you give them the cash. Then you wait. And the utilities don’t come back on. When they do, hours or days later, you notice that the entire neighborhood is back on. You weren’t given preferential treatment and nothing was done to your house.
Utility companies will never ask you for cash, even if a charge is applicable for reconnecting your service. On top of that, utility companies won’t send representatives to your home without confirming with you ahead of time.
Avoid the scam: Don’t give cash to any "representative" who comes to your home, even if they do have a uniform or ID. If someone does come to your home, call your utility company to confirm that they’re a real employee and authorized to be there.
Scams, scams everywhere
Follow the advice above and you’ll outsmart every scammer that shows up on your doorstep. Remember: when in doubt, contact your utility company through a secure line listed on their official website. They’ll be able to help you in most scammy situations.
Do you have a story about a utility scam? Maybe you outsmarted them and sent a criminal to jail? Or you were emotionally manipulated into giving up cash and now you’re out to warn others? Whatever the case, give us a shout in the comments below.
Want to learn more? Here's how to avoid a credit scam.
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