They lied to her to gain her trust. Spoke to her in her native language; shared their love of their home country with her, all the while scamming my sweet client into switching utility providers. They said they were with the local utility company. They showed her a valid looking identification card that seemed to indicate they were telling the truth. And they promised her discounts on utilities that would make anyone jump on board. In reality, they used her utility account number to switch her to another provider–and in the months that followed she saw bills that were more than triple what she had previously been paying.
She came to me for help with what we call a public benefit check. She had recently become disabled, was no longer able to do her past work and had exhausted her vacation pay. She was anxiously awaiting Social Security Disability benefits and had come to my office for help. We conduct public benefit checks often in the legal services industry, to review what public benefits, if any, that a client may qualify for so that we can help them apply; these benefits often make the difference between getting by and living.
During this routine check, I discovered she was not paying utility bills to her local provider alone, instead she had been inadvertently enrolled in a separate public utility provider, who she was ‘contracting’ with for the ‘services’. This is all a part of the overall utility ‘deregulation’ effects. Folks say the deregulation of the energy market provides choice for consumers. But in my mind and experience, it undermines the utilities we all rely upon. To me, deregulation of the energy market tears away at community connectedness. With all of this “choice”, we are left with so much confusion about which ‘service provider’ is legitimate, trustworthy and ultimately accountable to the public it is ‘tasked’ with serving. Hence, scams like the one that happened to my client can take years for government agencies to investigate. All the while, a ‘licensed and regulated’ energy ‘provider’ is not only defrauding countless people across the nation but is also engaging in anti-competitive and illegal scams to ‘compete’ with the public utility provider.
In my client’s case, she had been fraudulently enrolled as a customer of the company we will call “No Stars Energy”. No Stars Energy knocked at her door, speaking her native language, Spanish. The representative from No Stars Energy told my client a lie about a utility discount program that the public utility company was getting the word out about. My client then showed her bill so that the representative could ‘explain’ how much she could potentially save. Although my client saw a slight decrease for one month, it was in the months that followed that she noticed her bill would eventually triple. She did not understand that the electricity she consumed was being billed to her at more than triple the rate that the public utility charged; she did not even know that she had switched companies.
When we discovered what happened, I advised her of her rights. I agreed to help her file complaints with the local attorney general, public utility commission and the Federal Trade Commission. She will file a police report and we have decided to reach out to the media. These complaints cannot correct the sense of humiliation and loss and the anger that she feels over having been lied to and taken advantage of. Not to mention the bills she over paid for several months, which we are looking into.
When we spoke to the representative from the public utility company, my client asked again and again–“how can they show the ID of your company, how can they lie to me and so many others and get away with it?”. It was sad to see how much it affected her. In the end, it has really affected me too. This type of targeted scam is so unsettling. These are tough economic times. So many low-income and vulnerable people, especially seniors are at risk for this type of exploitation. It is even more upsetting because it seems at this time, we should be counting on our friends and neighbors, now more than ever.
Utility providers rarely provide discounts and rarely make unsolicited house calls. Contact your city’s 311 or municipal offices to ask about legitimate and local government assistance for utility costs, if you are in need of assistance with utilities. Your valid utility provider will rarely, if ever, contact you at home to discuss this type of help.
If you have a question or concern about something like this, call your utility provider or the police. Watch out, everyone. Guard your utility account numbers in the same way that you would guard your social security number, because in this day and age, it only takes an account number for this type of fraud to take place.