As sure as the spring flowers will soon be poking through the earth, so, too, will the blooming fools emerge from a long winter of scheming and planning as to how to separate seniors from their money. In this week's blog, we are going to look at utility scams and the creative ways these con men find to get what belongs to you.
We are going to start in Southeastern Massachusetts and one elderly woman who came face to face with a charming, young con man.
It was a beautiful spring day when the doorbell rang and Maria saw what appeared to be a repairman from National Grid. He was carrying a metal clipboard, had several forms of identification hanging from his neck and was wearing a baseball cap with an insignia that resembled that of the utility.
Upon opening the door, the young man introduced himself as “Alex” and that he wanted to review her "National Grid bills with you because I believe there may be a payment problem.” Maria immediately became frightened, not of the young man, but of the fact that she may have been late with her bills.
“I pay my bills every month, what’s wrong, what did I do,” she asked with trepidation.
“We found a problem with your account, that’s why I’m here,” said Alex. “Please let
me see your most recent bill so I can make some sense of what may be happening.”
Immediately, Maria ran into the kitchen, rummaged through her drawer and produced a stack of receipts for the well-spoken young man. He took the bills, looked through them, jotting down information in the metal case he was carrying.
“Ok Maria, I believe there was just a misunderstanding here and everything is fine. I’ll call the main office and let them know the bill is paid and it appears to be a computer error. Thanks for your time,” and with that he left with a smile. Maria closed the door and took a deep breath, knowing that everything was up to date. But, this was just the beginning of the problem for Maria.
What "Alex" was actually doing was writing down the account number – and that’s all he needed to switch the energy supplier. It’s a scam called “slamming” and victims have no idea that anything has happened until they get their next bill. Slamming involves a salesman switching a person's current electric provider to another company without their permission.
Another elderly resident had a different story. Rather than getting a calm and polite young man, she was greeted with an aggressive team of three individuals.
“They were at my door, one holding a large binder, the other two looking up at the wires and pointing to them, I thought something was seriously wrong,” Patricia stated.
“When I opened the door, they stated that they were glad I was home or else they might have had to have a shut off order placed. This scared the you know what out of me. So of course I invited them in."
Once inside, the pressure began.
“They told me that the wires outside were old and probably ‘losing electricity’ into the air. They stated that National Grid didn’t care about this but they did, being a 'registered and approved new supplier of power’ for Massachusetts. It sounded official and like they really cared,” Patricia said.
After sitting with her for nearly an hour, reviewing her electric bills with her and promising to not only give her better service but lower her rates, Patricia was all in. She signed the contract and looked forward to a summer where her air-conditioning costs did not get out of hand.
When her first bill came, she was pleasantly surprised to see the costs nearly one third less than usual. She was so proud of the deal she made, she passed on the news to her friends.
Her next bill, however, was a different story. It was at least ten percent higher than she was used to paying and the third bill was about twenty five percent higher. Patricia was angry and wanted to know why so she called the supplier and complained.
“They told me that in order to cancel the contract early, I had to pay a termination fee of between $300 to $500. The agent told me to think about this before making a decision and that by doing this, it could also affect my credit rating, so I felt I was stuck,” Patricia sighed.
So what is this "switching companies" all about? First of all it is legitimate, but not all companies are. This power supply mess has been made possible thanks to the 1998 deregulation of the electricity market in Massachusetts -- and other states -- which opened the door to energy supply companies that wanted to compete with the utilities.
But how is this possible? Don't companies like National Grid and Eversource make the electricity they sell? To understand this, let's look at how the electric the powers our daily life comes to us.
The service that we get from electric utilities is made up of two parts. First, how the power is delivered and second, where the power comes from. Delivery involves the hardware – poles, wires, transformers and other equipment used to bring electricity to your plugs. The utility companies — National Grid or Eversource in most of the region — own these systems. These utilities also handle the billing process.
Supply is the electricity that flows through this network into your light bulbs and toaster. This power can be purchased from the utility or, in many cases, from one of the 78 competitive supply companies that operate in Massachusetts. Some of the scammers operating in this area have changed the names of their companies as well as put up a new website and try again going door to door.
This is how these companies can bill you. They pay for the delivery system (which is passed on to you) and buy the electricity to sell to you. So they can promise lower bills at first but they will raise their rates because, after all, they are profit making entities.
Those companies that are intent on scamming you bank on the fact that once you receive bills that are higher than you expected, you will try to cancel the contract and this is where the termination fee comes in. The caveat to this is that municipalities that make their own power, and their still are a few, are not a part of the power supply game.
At the end of this blog will be a list of state agencies that you can check in with regarding these energy companies. But we're not done yet, there are more utility scams to discuss.
Watch this video as they catch an energy scammer attempting to defraud an elderly woman
Your Wires Are Bad
The Caruso family reported getting a phone call from a "company representative" who said they were from the “Electric Grid” and they were “recording a serious power drop at the meter." The call came shortly after 7:00pm when the local utility company closed for the evening.
When Mrs. Caruso asked what this meant, she was informed that such a drop could indicate a short circuit somewhere in the residence, “usually in the circuit breaker box” and was a serious fire hazard. She was told that the problem needed to be corrected immediately and the parts "needed to be ordered for installation in the morning." When she asked if they could come and do the work, the caller said they would but they do not supply the parts and that she would need to pay for them first.
When Mrs. Caruso pushed back, the caller became aggressive, stating that if the parts were not ordered and the work was not scheduled to be done by 9:00pm, they would have to shut down the power and report this to the building inspector in the morning who would probably condemn the house until a full inspection and repairs were made.
Immediately Mrs. Caruso became frightened and asked what she needed to do next. "Just give me a charge account or debit account that we can charge the hardware to. We do the work for free," said the caller.
When Mrs. Caruso said she wanted the name of his supervisor and number to call because she had her own electrician to make repairs, the caller hung up. This was nothing more than an attempt to get a credit card number and empty her account. In most cases, if the electric company is going to make a replacement, it will be included in the monthly bill and not be an up front cost before the repair is made.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, several cities in the area were without power for at least a week. It was bad enough that seniors had problems keeping their oxygen machines running, lost food in refrigerators and freezers that were not working and sweltered through a humid summer heat while dealing with breathing problems. But along came some slimy scammers who tried to capitalize on their suffering.
Several cases were reported of door to door solicitations by people claiming to represent the power company asking for “advance payment” that would put them on a preferential list to have their power restored quickly. Many fell for the scam due to the discomfort of their medical conditions. Other seniors, who had dead cell phones, were unable to call anyone to check the legitimacy of this offer.
Similar scams have been reported in areas hit by tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding and earthquakes. Utilities will not ask for money up front to restore power. The only customers who may receive the “preferential” service are hospitals and other institutions. Any charges made by a utility will be put on a bill and not solicited door to door.
You’re Getting Money Back
Who doesn’t welcome a phone call telling you that you have some unexpected
money coming. Marco got his call one night while he was getting out of the shower and getting ready to watch the news.
"I get this call, and the number on the caller identification looked legitimate. They said they were calling from Washington, D.C. from the consumer agency and that Eversource had overcharged my account. This guy went on about a class action suit that was just settled and it was now being distributed," Marco recalled.
"Then, the guy says to me, 'give me your bank account number and we will credit your account by morning', that's when it hit me in the head that something was up," he laughed. "I asked him what my name and address was so I could be sure this was real. He hung up real fast!"
When we spoke with a local energy provider, they stated that they do not provide refunds for over payments, choosing to credit the next bill. The only exception to this is if someone is terminating service and has a credit. In those cases, refunds will be issued. Bottom line, never give out account numbers on the phone.
No Electricity For You
Sarah was eating dinner with her husband when the phone rang. On the other end was someone stating that they were from the power company.
"He told me that according to their records, our bill was critically past due and service would be terminated immediately if payment was not made. I panicked," said Sarah.
"I told my husband who pulled out our records and our bills were paid. When I protested to the caller, he asked me for my account number to make sure he was looking at the right account. I gave it to him, my first mistake. I mean, if he knew who he was calling, I should have had him read it to me so I could verify it."
After she gave him the number, he said he was going through the records and told her the account was three months past due.
"I was beside myself. I told him that I have all the bills right here marked paid and could get the checks by morning to back that up. He was very calm, telling me that to avoid termination tonight, I could schedule a payment with him and in the morning, 'any discrepancy could be fixed'. I almost fell for it," stated Sarah.
What she did next was smart. She asked the caller for the address on the account and he was told that he did not have that information.
"At that point, I knew it was a con. I told him that I was concerned that this was a scam and to please give me a phone number so I could call him back. He hung up immediately."
Utilities will never shut off service without sending disconnection notices in the mail. They are required to do so by law. Even if you are behind, they will try to help you figure out payment options before termination does occur.
It's a Text So it Must Be Official
A relatively new scam called Smishing, short for SMS phishing, involves sending mobile phone users a text message asking for account information. The cons are banking on the fact that consumers tend to trust text messages and will respond to them. Of course, once you give them what they want, your account will be emptied.
Most utilities will only use text messages if you give them your number and request that this be used. It is usually done when someone is waiting for service or an emergency occurs in the area.
We’re Here to Help You
Known as the contractor con, these people dressed like utility workers will knock on
your door and say they were hired by the electric company to repair a piece of equipment. There could be two goals here. One, to get inside the house and while one person keeps you busy, the second is going through your drawers and jewelry box to clean you out. The second goal is to claim they made a repair and then demand payment, that, if not made, will result in termination of your service.
Unless there is a natural disaster or serious emergency, utility workers will not show up at your house unexpectedly. Make sure you review their identification.
We Have A Deal For You
Well-dressed cons will come to your door telling you they did a “thermo-scan” of the neighborhood and your house was losing either “cooling” if it’s summer or “heat” if it’s winter. They offer to inspect your house, free of charge, and see how you could save on your bills. After they are let in, the pressure starts and they try to sell expensive items to you. They may also be there to rob you.
Unless you requested such service or the utility company called to make arrangements with you, do not let them in your house.
High Tech Robbery
Jeff received an email from his credit card company stating that there was "suspicious activity" detected. The logos looked real, the links worked and although he was computer savvy, this suspicious activity email could be legitimate.
After a few links, he came upon a screen where he was asked for his social security number and account number so a "thorough" consumer fraud scan could be done "for my protection".
"I got out of that site as fast as I could, " Jeff laughed. "I also ran a scan using a program I have for viruses. They almost had me."
Today, scammers send spam emails disguised as legitimate utility emails with spoofed utility email addresses, logos, trademarks, website links, and wording to add to the deception. Delete them immediately.
If you do have a concern about the email, call the number on your bill and inquire
about the email.
AVOIDING THESE CROOKS
Keep Your Information Safe – Never provide information about yourself to anyone who calls you. If the caller is legitimate, tell them your concern and ask for a call back number. Check this number with your bill contact number or run it on your browser.
Don't be Intimidated - A person claiming they are from a utility company and asking you questions, reverse it and take the same tact. Ask them what your account number is, your last payment amount, what date you paid, etc. If they are legitimate, they will have that information on hand and have no problem giving you that information. If they can’t, hang up.
Breathe - Scammers count on you reacting to them and not responding. When we react, it is based in emotion and we are more apt to give out information without thinking. The scammer is coming from a place of power when they make these calls because they can scare you, but the key here is to take that power back. Ask them to verify who they are, ask for the supervisor or ask for a call back number. If they begin to get angry or aggressive, you can be sure this is a scam. What you have done is take the power role. However, they may take a breath and try to get the power back by taking a compassionate stance. Don't fall for it. Hang up the phone or close the door.
The Cold Call - Like we wrote earlier, utilities do not show up on your doorstep to shut off your power. They are required by law to send multiple notices. If someone is at the door, ask to see a copy of the notice, your bill and account number and someone you can call about this.
Call Someone - If you catch a scammer, call the police, the utility or even the newspaper. Although the police may not be able to catch the cons, they can make the community aware of what is happening in the area. Information like this could save another senior from losing their savings.
Click on the State Seal below to be connected with the consumer fraud division.
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.