Utility Scams are an Ongoing Threat

It’s been a while since I brought up Utility Scams, so now is as good a time as any for a quick recap.

Utility Scams are an example of a distraction scam, and they generally target seniors. These scammers generally work in pairs. One will knock on the door and claim to work for the local utility company. He will claim they are testing something, or fixing something, or there’s some kind of urgent situation that requires the resident to allow him inside the house to do something with the circuit breaker.

While the homeowner is busy with this person in the basement, his partner will enter the home and look around for cash, jewelry or other valuables to steal. After a few minutes of pretending to work on something, the first person will claim the job is done and leave. By the time the resident notices the robbery, the scammers are long gone.

Your utility company should always contact you in advance if there really is an issue that requires someone to enter your house. However, such scenarios are extremely unusual. If someone appears at your door claiming to represent a utility, politely ask to see an ID badge. Regardless of the response, ask them to wait a moment. Close the door and lock it, make sure any other doors are locked, and call the utility company directly if you’re still unsure, or call the police if you’ve got a bad feeling. Do not simply let a stranger into your house on his word.

It’s also not a good idea to let on that you think this person is trying to commit a crime. This is an in-person scam, and it carries risks that aren’t really present with a scam phone call from the other side of the globe. They might just run, but they might not. It’s better to pretend to play along. Most likely they’ll take off as soon as you close the door—the point of most scams is to get in and out quickly. Standing around on someone’s porch in broad daylight for more than a couple seconds isn’t going to appeal to someone who doesn’t want to be seen.

Watch out for fake utility workers

It seems like as good a time as any to once again remind everyone to beware of burglars posing as utility company workers.

The usual setup starts with a knock on the door. The person standing on your doorstep claims to work for the electric or gas company, telephone company, or some other utility. They tell you they are in your neighborhood working on some or other problem, or performing routine maintenance, and ask to be shown to your circuit breaker (or whatever piece of hardware makes sense). Often they’ll even look like a real utility company employee, with a clipboard, nametag and possibly even a uniform.

While you’re showing them to the circuit breaker-or-whatever, an accomplice you didn’t see slips into your house looking for valuables or money.

It doesn’t really matter which type of company they claim to represent, the important thing to remember is that if a utility provider is going to need access to the inside of your house (which they almost never will), they will contact you ahead of time. They will not show up unannounced.

If someone is at your door and you were not contacted in advance, ask to see a badge or official identification, which they should gladly provide. Then politely ask them to wait while you close your door, lock it, lock any other doors, and call the utility company to ask if they’ve sent people to your house. Whatever you do, don’t let them in or call them out on being a crook. This type of scam differs from most in that it involves actual, physical proximity to the perpetrators, which can put you in danger of bodily harm.

Utility worker scams often target senior citizens, so make sure your friends, family and neighbors are aware of this type of crime, what to watch for and how to respond.

Door-to-door scams: the Alarm Company Variant

I write a lot of articles about high-tech forms of fraud, but that doesn’t mean all scams are electronic in nature. Just as a large amount of identity theft starts with dumpster diving, thousands of people still get scammed in person every year.

A recent variation (discussed in this video from CNN) is that criminals will ring your doorbell, claiming to represent an alarm company, and tell you that you’ve been selected for a possible free burglar alarm installation. They will ask to be let in, supposedly to see if your home qualifies and to scope it out for the installation.

What they’re really doing is, in the parlance of every bad robbery movie you’ve ever seen, is casing the joint for a future break-in. They’re making mental notes of where you keep everything.

If they’re slightly less sneaky, they might just rob you on the spot once you let them in. Either way, the situation is extremely dangerous.

The first thing you have to remember is that burglar alarm companies don’t sell door-to-door. They also don’t install anything for random people for free. Call one up and ask them sometime if you don’t believe me. Okay, maybe they’ll have a drawing at their booth at the county fair, but you still have to enter, and they’re not going to just show up without calling first.

The second thing is this: the days of being able to take a stranger at his word are long gone. When someone you don’t know is standing at your front door, you have no way of verifying their story. If you haven’t requested a service (i.e., called a plumber or an electrician), don’t just accept what that person tells you, and never let them in your house under any circumstance.

Toward a definition of identity theft.

The other day I heard a warning that having someone steal your checkbook is the “worst form of identity theft.”

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure that is identity theft.

I suppose I’m something of a purist in this case. To me, “identity theft” occurs when someone obtains your personal identifying information without your permission, and uses it to open new financial accounts, obtain credit, medical services or employment, or evade arrest.

To me, someone just swiping your checkbook and passing checks all over town falls under the umbrella of simple “theft.” I suppose on some level the thief is implying that he or she is you, but credit is not being obtained in your name in this case. It’s sort of like someone just stealing your cash. The thief doesn’t have your Social Security number or date of birth, all he has is your checkbook. Once those stop working, he’ll abandon them.

Not that having your checkbook stolen isn’t a massive headache. I’m not saying it’s something to take lightly at all. It’s just that I don’t think it constitutes identity theft per se.

I also don’t believe that simple credit card theft usually equals identity theft. Once again, the thief may be implying that he or she is an authorized user of your credit card, but that’s as far as the crook is taking things. They’re not changing your address so you don’t get the bills, they’re just burning through your card for a couple days until they max it out.

Once again, it’s a pain for the victim, but it’s not quite identity theft.

My parents were among the victims of the Heartland Payment Systems data breach back in 2008. Their credit card (which they had used once at a restaurant) suddenly showed two charges of $850 at an electronics store in California. One call to the credit card company was all it took—I don’t even think my dad had to finish his sentence before the customer service person said, “Yes, there was a data breach…aaaaaand you’re all fixed.” There was no need to place alerts on credit reports or anything. A crook had used their credit card numbers, they called the company, problem solved. In a case of true identity theft, it would have taken a lot more than one phone call to remedy the situation.

Again, I’m not saying this type of theft can’t be a hassle, because it can be. I guess I’ve just been seeing the term “identity theft” get thrown around a lot, and it seems useful to place a few limits on the term, if only for clarity.

One final point: you’ll never hear me use the phrase “ID theft” as shorthand for identity theft. Your ID is a card with your picture and information on it. Your identity is all the non-public personal information about you—date of birth, Social Security number, credit reports, etc.

To me, “ID theft” sounds like somebody just stole your driver’s license. Of course, identity theft could involve someone stealing your ID (and then manufacturing a new one with their picture and your information), but “ID theft” is a term that obscures rather than illuminates.

Repair scams: never let strangers into your home.

Just this past Wednesday in Highland, Indiana, two men gained entry into a residence and stole cash. They claimed to be testing the water for bacteria after an alleged line break.

Once again, a real-life case reminds us of one of the most important rules of scam and fraud prevention: never let anyone inside your house unless you know, beyond reasonable doubt, who they are, why they are there, and what they are doing.

It’s not enough to just believe what they say. You have to verify.

Any time a municipal employee needs access to a residence, they will be carrying identification. Always ask to see it. If you are still unsure, call the department they represent and confirm that someone is supposed to be making visits that require entry. Be polite about it—there’s no need to be combative at this point—but have them wait outside and lock your door while you call.

If they bolt, that’s an obvious sign of a scam in progress. Call the police instead. If they become angry or abusive, that could be a sign, but it could also just mean you’re dealing with a bad employee. Make the call and report the behavior while you’re at it. You don’t have to let anyone in—tell the city to send somebody nice. They work for you.

Be extremely cautious if two people are standing outside your door; a lot of times these crooks work in pairs. However, if there is only one person and you decide to let them in, go ahead and lock the door while they’re in the house. Sometimes a second person is waiting to enter while the resident is distracted.

For obvious reasons, these scams (which are really just robberies) tend to target people who live alone, since they can’t be in two places at once. They also specifically target the elderly, so make sure your friends, neighbors and relatives are aware of the dangers. These crimes can occur anywhere.

Finally, if you’ve let someone in your house and realized your mistake before they’re gone, don’t let them know you’ve caught on. A cornered criminal can be a dangerous object, even though it appears most of these perpetrators are relatively nonviolent. Get a good description of the person, their vehicle and a license plate number, if possible. Wait until they’re gone and call the police once you know you’re safe. Your health is far more important than your possessions or your cash.