Utility shut-off scammers threaten to turn off the lights on consumers during pandemic

As the world reels from the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to the threat to public health, the virus is also wreaking unprecedented economic havoc. Tens of millions of Americans are out of work, and many are wondering how we are going to keep the lights on. Unfortunately, scammers are aware of this, too. NCL has recently seen a spike in consumer complaints about scammers posing as local power company representatives threatening to shut off fearful consumers. 

The anatomy of the scam is highly consistent: a consumer receives a call from someone claiming to be with the electric utility company. The caller warns the consumer that their power is about to be shut off over an unpaid bill. The only way to avoid this is to pay up immediately, typically via wire transfer, gift card, or some other difficult-to-stop payment method.

Such a call can be very scary—particularly for those who may need electricity to power medical devices or run their small business. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many consumers are having trouble keeping up with their bills, which may make them even more vulnerable to this scam. And even for consumers who are confident they’ve paid their bill, the impending threat of a shut-off at the height of summer heat can cause a panic.

The story we received recently from a consumer in Detroit, Michigan is typical of these scams. She writes:

“I was called by [someone] claiming to be a manager for DTE stating that my bill had not been paid and my services were going to be shut off and would not be turned back on for another week if I didn’t pay him in 40 minutes. I was told to drive to a Speedway where I loaded $400 on to one card and $387.63 on the second card. I immediately gave the man the 14-digit code on the back and he advised me that services would not be shut off.”

To spot the red flags of these scams, and avoid becoming a victim, here are some tips that you can use:

  • Don’t panic. According to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, electric utilities in all 50 states have placed moratoriums on disconnections during the COVID-19 crisis, either voluntarily or in response to government orders. If someone contacts you claiming that they’re about to shut-off your electricity, it’s a scam.
  • Worried? Contact the power company. A utility will never initiate a disconnection without contacting you via the mail first. If you received a call from someone claiming they’re about to turn off your power, hang up and contact your electric company. Their toll-free phone number and website address is typically listed on your electric bill.
  • Beware of unusual payment methods. Anyone who asks you to pay an overdue electric or other utility bill via wire transfer, gift card, bank-to-bank transfer, bitcoin, or any other unusual payment method is almost certainly trying to scam you.
  • Do not give out personal information. Utility imposters may offer to connect their victims to federal assistance programs or payment plans to help pay their overdue bills. They just need to “verify” the victim’s information. In reality, these scammers are trying to gather the information they need to steal your identity. If you suspect something is amiss, hang up and call your utility company directly.

If you suspect that you have become a victim, report it immediately. You can file a complaint at Fraud.org via our secure online complaint form. We’ll share your complaint with our network of law enforcement and consumer protection agency partners who can investigate and help put fraudsters behind bars.

Read our other Fraud Alerts here.