Utility bill scams, where con artists pretending to be energy company reps demand payments in cash or prepaid cards, have been on the rise — but police detectives say those scams are only icing on the cake for organized groups of itinerant identity thieves.
Eversource Energy spokesperson Kaitlyn Woods described a recent incident that’s similar to what many other customers have reported.
“A business owner was contacted by a scammer who was impersonating an Eversource rep. They threatened to disconnect power if they didn’t make a payment for more than $800. In that case, the scammer also had knowledge of the exact balance of the customer’s account, which she had already paid,” Woods said.
While scammers don’t often know your balance, this one may have obtained that information by rummaging through the business owner’s trash.
Usually, the scammers will only accept payments in cash or prepaid cards like Green Dot, MoneyPak, Vanilla or Reloadit, and they’ll either call on the phone or arrive at your door in person.
That should be a red flag since utility companies will not call and demand immediate payment or require things like prepaid cards.
Another red flag is if a person going door-to-door appears as an Eversource representative and asks to see your bill.
“We would not ask to see a customer’s energy bill because we have all that information,” Woods said.
Many times, people who give scammers the money are seen as vulnerable, such as businesses where a loss of electricity would come with higher stakes, or elderly residents. And they are targeted for that reason.
In recent weeks, it’s happened in communities all across the state. Woods said there was a lot of activity in Londonderry.
John Shore with Liberty Utilities said folks claiming to be from Liberty have also been actively scamming.
“We got reports of this happening in the Salem area, in Lebanon, in Charlestown,” Shore said, though the reports were for a combination of actual scams and of legitimate sales people.
Scams were also reported in Canaan, Walpole and Monroe.
What’s really happening
A scammer will almost always request personal information or to view your bill if they are there in person. They often claim to be simply verifying your information, but what they’re really doing is collecting information about the person they didn’t have before.
This, more than anything else, is what they’re really after, according to Londonderry police Detective Chris Olson.
“Once you get a little bit of information you can go a little further and further with each bit of information you get,” Olson said.
The endgame, after they’ve collected sufficient personal information on an individual, is to use it for identity theft. If the scammers can fool you into forking over a few hundred dollars in the process, all the better for them.
Olson said scammers use the personal information to create legitimate-seeming credit cards under their victim’s name and use them to take out as much money as they can. They’ll spend it on things they can sell for a profit like cigarettes and alcohol and other gift cards they can sell for cash, which eliminates all traces of its coming from the victim’s account.
And these guys are organized. Olson said they often operate through a tiered, multi-state organization that can sometimes be as many as hundreds or thousands of individuals. There may be a top boss overseeing everything and often there’s what Olson describes as the “foot soldiers” who do the door-to-door and phone call scams at the bottom. In between, there are the guys with the computers and re-encoding equipment used to collect personal data and make credit cards and there are the money launderers who turn those credit cards into cash.
Late last year, Olson said, his department was able to aid in the arrest of three men from Texas who were placing skimmer devices that scanned people’s debit and credit cards at ATM machines and gas pumps in Londonderry, Pelham, Hudson, Plaistow, Nashua and some towns in northern Massachusetts.
Londonderry police were the first to successfully obtain a skimmer device, which, with the help of the state police forensic lab, they were able to match up with re-encoding equipment found on men arrested in Hudson.
Criminals will pose not only as energy and heat providers but as cable providers too.
While Comcast spokespeople say they haven’t heard anything about the scams thus far, Olson said he hears about scammers posing as Comcast agents a few times a week.
Shore said scammers target natural gas customers during the colder months.
Another thing that has been happening is deceptive marketing practices by Eversource competitors, according to Woods. This is a phenomenon that’s often conflated with the bill scams by identity thieves, but it’s actually third-party sales reps contracted with independent energy suppliers who can legally market their energy, often produced out of state, to residents.
“The door-to-door [marketing] is mostly what we’re dealing with right now. That’s the largest number of complaints that we’re getting,” Woods said.
She said representatives will either be wearing an Eversource shirt or nametag or claim to be from Eversource, and offer a competitive price for their energy. Selling alternative energy supply contracts isn’t out of the ordinary, but when it’s done by individuals misrepresenting what company they work for, it’s against state regulations.
Shore said some Liberty customers were nervous about these marketers appearing at their door and reported them to the company, unsure whether the marketers were scammers. Legitimate sales reps for alternative energy suppliers are allowed to make door-to-door pitches, assuming they are being honest about what company they represent, but customers are still advised against showing their bills to anyone. Customers can always check price comparisons online at the Public Utilities Commission website.
Amanda Noonan at the PUC said there are two energy providers using door-to-door marketing: Direct Energy and ClearView Energy. The deceptive practices were associated with outside sales reps contracted with one of them, and she said the company has since terminated that contract.
Room for improvement
Olson said Londonderry police have arrested about 20 identity thieves over the past 12 months or so, but law enforcement could be doing far better at cracking down on this kind of activity.
Because they are so mobile, scammers can easily hop from community to community, state to state, and evade local police. Olson said he’s seen them come from as far as Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas or California.
They’ll scam a few residents and businesses and skip town before police can pick up their trail.
This is what happened in Dover this summer, according to Dover Police Lieutenant David Martinelli. A case was opened, but it quickly went cold.
“Never really got any traction because it kind of stopped,” Martinelli said.
Olson said that’s typical.
“It’s impressive how they keep staying one step ahead of us,” Olson said.
As proud as he is of the arrests his department has made in these cases, he knows law enforcement in the state could be doing a far better job if there were a way to pool information between local departments and perhaps have a dedicated task force that could monitor the travel patterns of suspects and individuals previously arrested for similar crimes.
Just knowing what community they are in can go a long way toward gathering crucial evidence, alerting local police and tying together separate cases across jurisdictions.