Local and state officials are warning people to be on the alert for con men and burglars who are posing as utility workers to target residents.
In a twist to the scams, thieves are extorting thousands of dollars from residents by calling to tell them their electric meters need to be replaced or their bills are overdue. Residents are complying with the demands in fear that their lights or gas will be shut off.
Mitch Gross, a spokesman for Connecticut Light & Power, said the company has received hundreds of complaints about the scammers that date back to an uptick they noticed last year. In some of the cases, customers have lost thousands, he said.
“It’s a situation that continues to occur, daily,” Gross said. “We have a group of scammers who continue to prey on Connecticut customers. As long as people continue to pay them, they will continue to operate.”
The thieves are posing as CL&P, Connecticut Natural Gas or United Illuminating employees when they call residents. They tell customers their power will be shut off if they don’t pay a past due bill or in some cases, tell people they owe money for replacing a meter.
To swindle people, the con men are demanding that people pay the bill using a prepaid debit or credit card. Upon payment, the thieves disappear. The thieves have targeted people across the state, Gross said.
“These individuals are becoming more brazen in their approach,” Gross said. “They’ve gone from, ‘we’ll restore your power for $200,’ to ‘you need to pay x amount or we will shut you off immediately.’”
The amount of money being extorted ranges from several hundred to several thousand dollars, according to the state’s Better Business Bureau and the Department of Consumer Protection.
Howard Schwartz, a spokesman for the BBB, sent out an alert Tuesday telling residents that they shouldn’t “cave in” to pressure from the callers, especially if they ask for payment with the prepaid cards. Utility companies take checks or credit cards, so demanding money to be sent to prepaid cards is a “red flag,” Schwartz said in the alert.
Complaints of the scam have been reported in 15 states, Schwartz said.
In calls and emails to customers, the scammers have also been known to use personal information to make it appear the calls are legitimate. It’s unclear where the swindlers are gaining that personal information or where they’re based.
“One of scammers’ most effective tools is fear, and unfortunately, the victims are being frightened into paying, under the threat of having their utilities turned off,” Schwartz said.
Customers should hang up on the callers and dial their utility company directly if they’re solicited for money over the phone.
“We are more than ready to work with our customers and answer their questions,” Gross said.
Electric meters are also the property of the utility company that installed them and customers aren’t responsible for them.
CL&P’s security team has been working with state and local police, but Gross said the scammers have been very difficult to track down.
Officials are also warning people to not let people posing as workers inside their homes.
In recent cases in Naugatuck and Waterbury, men posing as water department workers talked their way inside homes, telling the owners they needed to check on utilities inside. After they gain access, they steal valuables from the homeowners, according to police.
In December, two men gained access to an elderly couple’s home in Naugatuck posing at “water company” employees. Once the man left, the couple noticed a large sum of money missing, according to police.
One of the suspects in Waterbury city scam was a young-looking man who was wearing a white hard hat, a bluish-gray jacket and a work badge. He also had a walkie-talkie, police said.
In any case where a utility worker knocks on a customer’s door, residents should ask for ID and can call the company directly to ensure the visit is legitimate.
“There are very, very few reasons why a CL&P employee should be coming to your door,” Gross said. “If they do, they carry photo ID and they are more than happy to show it to you.”