Cold weather's coming and so are utility scammers

Photo (c) Gilnature - Getty Images

Mobile phone security expert offers advice on how to keep a scammer from getting too far

Is it cold where you are? Well, if you’re not feeling the pinch of the cost of heating your home, you probably will soon. The forecast for residential utility prices is up – way up – across the board.

Natural gas is predicted to be 28% higher than last winter, heating oil up 27%, electricity up 10%, and propane up 5%. 

And now that colder weather is starting to show its face, utility scammers are right behind with deals on how consumers – especially the ones trying to live within a budget – can save some money on their utility bills by doing rather commonplace things like inspecting your furnace, repairing your leaky roof, or cleaning your heating ducts.

There are also scammers who may go for larger payoffs like offering to install solar panels on someone’s house.

Fortunately – thanks to some insights from mobile communications company First Orion and tips from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – ConsumerAffairs found some ways to help consumers keep their homes nice and toasty and their bank accounts from getting looted by those scammers.

How to stay one step ahead of the scammers who show up at your house

To stay ahead of winter weather-related scammers – and certainly before anyone hires a contractor who initiates contact – the FTC suggests the following:

  • Anyone know these guys? Get recommendations from people you know and trust, or maybe check with your contacts on NextDoor.

  • Show some proof! Ask contractors for IDs, licenses, proof of insurance, and references before paying for services. 

  • Sniff ‘em out online. Search online for the company’s name with words like “scam” or “complaint.”

  • “Could you please pay me in gift cards, ma’am?” “Pay by credit card or check, which offers you protections — never with cash, gift cards, or through wire transfer companies like Western Union or MoneyGram,” Terri Miller, a consumer education specialist at the FTC, said. “And only pay in full after the work is done and you’re satisfied with it.”

  • Get a contract.  Miller says smart consumers will avoid handshake deals. “Make sure all promises are in writing and that you understand what you’re signing,” she said.

How to stay ahead of the ones that call

Not every scammer will show up on your doorstep. There are those who live on the other side of the world who’ll call consumers up threatening to cut off their utilities, pitch them on a promise that the government will pay to put solar on their home, get some sort of tax rebate, or some cockamamie story about how they’ll never have to pay another utility bill ever again!

“We’ve seen utility scams become more apparent since last March, with a noticeable increase in October. Ultimately, receiving free solar panels is too good to be true and likely is a scam attempt,” Kent Welch, chief data officer at First Orion, told ConsumerAffairs.

"Threatening to shut off service for non-payment is another common tactic phone scammers use.”

Welch tells us there are plenty of ways consumers can protect themselves.

“The first recommendation I have for people is when receiving a call from a number that they don't know is simple, don't answer,” he said.

“When a bad actor gets someone to answer their call, their goal is to pull whatever information they can out of them in the hopes of scamming them right then and there or adding new personal information to that person’s profile to scam them in the future.”

Other tips Welch gave ConsumerAffairs include:

Never give out your personal information over the phone if you do answer. “Utility companies do not demand banking information over the phone and won’t force you to pay by phone as your only option,” Welch said. He said that a scammer’s m.o. is to try and force urgency by making threats and pressuring people into making decisions quickly without being able to check the validity of their claims.

If you do accidentally give away information, do not feel embarrassed. “These scammers are good at what they do. They make it hard to know if they are legit or not. That's why they steal so much money.” How much? First Orion estimates U.S. mobile subscribers received over 100 billion scam calls during the first six months of 2022 which shakes out to over 80 million successful scam attempts and cumulative financial losses as high as $40 billion.

If you feel you've given personal information away or feel uneasy about an interaction, time is of the essence. Welch said the first call should be the utility provider to ensure it was them that called. If it wasn’t, the consumer should quickly contact the bank or credit card company tied to the information you shared with the scammers and inform them of the incident.

“I know of several folks who have received these scam calls that threaten utility shut-off. In many cases, the recipient didn't even have an account with the utility company. In other cases, they had auto-draft set up and just checked their credit card or bank statement to confirm they weren’t behind in payment,” Welch said.

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