Last week in Fall River, Massachusetts, energy scammers set their sight on a modest middle-class neighborhood populated by elder Portuguese and Hispanic American citizens. Ringing the doorbell of one of the well-kept triple-deckers that lined the street, an official looking man, wearing what looked like a National Grid uniform minus the patches, greeted the elderly woman who answered.
“Good evening, Ma’am”, he said,” I’m from the energy company and I’m here to do an audit on your electric bills. It appears that you’re using a tremendous amount of energy and with the current rate hikes taking effect, we want to help you save money and by the way, if you don't address this by September 1st, you may be paying much more money.”
Mrs. Medeiros pointed to the sign on her house which said, “NO SOLICITORS” while stating in broken English, “No salesman can come here”.
This sign was put on the Medeiros property last year after a similar issue arose with another person who stated he was from the electric company. This man tried night after night to enter the property and was turned away when Mrs. Medeiros’ son was home, but on one evening he found her alone.
Although Mrs. Medeiros’ son had already told this man to stop harassing her, he returned and demanded access to the upstairs apartments. When she told him to leave her property, he became belligerent and stated, “It may be your property but the electric wires inside belong to the electric company and we have every right to inspect this property anytime we want!”
Before he could get inside, her son returned in time to usher this con off the property. A call to the Fall River Police Department resulted in the sign being put up and a promise from the police that any further harassment could be met with an arrest.
This time around, Mrs. Medeiros pointed to the sign when this new scammer arrived, thinking the problem would be solved. Instead, his answer was, “Oh, I’m not soliciting anything and I’m not selling anything. I’m simply here from the electric company to do an audit that will save you money. You do want to save money, don’t you?”
To Mrs. Medeiros, it seemed legitimate. After all, he had on a uniform, a hard hat, a flashlight hanging from his belt and a metal clipboard. Around his neck hung multiple identification cards that looked official. He was allowed into her apartment.
Once inside, he stated that he had reviewed her previous bills but needed to see her current bill because it “wasn’t loaded on the computer yet”. Once he had this in his hand, he copied her account number and other personal information off the bill. He then asked, "I need to see some type of identification so I can see if your name matches the one on the bill, I’m required to do that by law”.
For many of these elderly folks, they usually do not have a driver’s license and may show these con men their social security card or a bank card with their account number on it opening themselves up for additional financial exploitation.
The energy scam is not just in the Northeast but in major cities throughout the country as this news report shows. It may be different companies perpetrating the con, but they all use similar tactics in an attempt to defraud customers and especially seniors.
The phony electric man convinced Mrs. Medeiros to change her energy supplier to save “at least $20 or $30 a month”. Luckily, Mrs. Medeiros’ daughter stopped by as the con was in progress and put an end to it. When she asked the person to leave her mother's apartment, he stated, ‘I’m sorry ma’am, but Mrs. Medeiros is of sound mind and made this decision on her own”. A phone call to the police sent this con running and the paperwork was left behind.
So, what is going on here with this energy scam?
This con is known as “slamming”, an illegal practice of switching customers to another energy provider without their consent. Unfortunately, in an attempt to help consumers, many states allowed customers to switch electric and gas suppliers to save money. This turned out to be confusing, especially for the elderly and those with special needs, and a perfect vehicle for con artists.
Unscrupulous companies found that by promising consumers the ability to save up to 20 percent or more on their bills, they would switch their accounts to their company. For the first couple of months, the bills would be lower and then suddenly would skyrocket to rates far above what they were paying to their old provider. When the consumers would complain, the new company would point out that they have signed a long-term contract and if they want out of it, there would be a sizeable cancellation fee.
I strongly suggest that seniors avoid any unsolicited offers regarding energy savings either from door to door salesmen or from phone marketers. If you want to explore what reputable companies can offer regarding rates, visit your state’s Public Utility Commission’s website where state vetted suppliers post the information. Don't be taken by these repugnant con artists.
Attorney Connelly practices in the area of elder law. This area of law involves Medicaid planning and asset protection advice for those individuals entering nursing homes, planning for the possibility of disability through the use of powers of attorney for the both health care and finances, guardianship, estate planning, probate and estate administration, preparation of wills, living trusts and special or supplemental needs trusts. He represents clients primarily in the states of Rhode Island, Connecticut and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was certified as an Elder Law Attorney (CELA) by the National Elder Law Foundation (NELF) in 2008. Attorney Connelly is licensed to practice before the Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Federal Bars.