Have you ever received a call from a utility company claiming that your bill is overdue and if you don’t pay now, your power, heat or water will be turned off? That is the last thing you want in Michigan’s cold winters or hot summers. Scammers know this and will pose as utility company employees to trick you into providing money, personal or financial information.
Michigan consumers are targeted by Utility Imposter Scams every day and increase as we approach the holiday season. This year is even worse due to the ongoing financial impacts of COVID-19. Attorney General Dana Nessel wants to help Michigan consumers recognize potential bad actors posing as utility workers, whether in-person, by phone, text, or online.
Scammers will bully consumers, threatening to turn off power, heat or water at a most inconvenient time. They are aggressive, stating payment must be made immediately, and be paid in a manner not used by utilities, such as a Green Dot debit card, Western Union wire transfer, bitcoin, or apps like Cash App, Venmo, and Zelle – or you may be asked to provide bank account or credit card account information for payment.
Utility companies may offer you the option to pay over the phone but will never demand immediate payment over the phone. They will also never do the following:
Solicit personal information in the name of signing you up for a government program that claims to reduce energy bills.
Make unannounced visits to collect a bill or threaten shutoff. Utilities will never threaten to disrupt or disconnect service either in person, over the phone, or by email. All late payment notices are mailed USPS and provide the steps to restore the account to good standing.
Show up at your home to inspect or repair equipment, investigate a leak or do a free audit for energy efficiency. Consumers are notified in advance of a home visit.
Request personal or financial information, such as your social security number, utility account number, or payment information. Instead, customers are asked to validate account information such as billing zip code, home address, or the phone number associated with the account.
Claim you are entitled to a refund or rebate and ask for bank account or credit card information to make the alleged refund.
Use aggressive tactics to get into your home. Utility companies do require employees to always wear a company identification badge that will be produced upon request.
It is no surprise that scammers have been trying to take advantage of the anxiety of people coping with the pandemic. Scammers can be convincing and often target those who are most vulnerable, including senior citizens and low-income communities. They also aim their scams at small business owners during busy service hours. However, with the right information, utility customers can learn to detect and report these predatory scams.
Scammers are now able to create authentic-looking 800 numbers which appear on your phone display. The number, if called back, will direct you to an imposter acting as a utility worker at a utility company you are familiar with. Instead of dialing the number provided by the caller, locate contact information for that company on a recent utility bill and call to confirm if they contacted you in the first place
If a scammer threatens immediate disconnection or shutoff of service without prior notification, hang up the phone, delete the email, or shut the door. Customers with delinquent accounts will receive an advance disconnection notification, typically by mail included with their regular monthly bill. To be safe, hang up and call the company directly from a phone number available on their website or in a monthly bill.
Never purchase or provide a prepaid card, send money through a wire transfer service like Western Union, or send money through a mobile application like Zelle to avoid disconnection or shutoff. Utility companies will offer a variety of ways to pay a bill including online payment, by phone, automatic bank draft, mail in or in person at an authorized payment center.
Create an online account with each utility. Not only can customers log in to check their balance and payment history, they can sign up for recurring payments, paperless billing and helpful alerts.
If you suspect you have been contacted by a utility imposter, call the number for that service provider listed on your utility bill to speak to a customer service representative. They can confirm the status of your account, make appropriate arrangements to protect your account, and assist you with a payment plan if necessary. Also report it online to the Michigan Public Service Commission or call 800-292-9555.
If you’ve mistakenly provided bank account or credit card information to someone you suspect might have been an impostor, call your bank or credit card company immediately.
Customers who feel threatened during contact with an imposter should contact local law enforcement.
Utilities United Against Scams (UUAS) is an agency dedicated to combating impostor utility scams by providing a forum for utilities and trade associations to share data and best practices, in addition to working together to implement initiatives to inform and protect customers. They also published a comprehensive Consumer Guide to Imposter Utility Scams for consumer assistance.