Guard against Cold-Weather Crooks
By Attorney General Roy Cooper
Falling temperatures remind us of the changing seasons, but we also need to be aware of seasonal scams. Winter conditions often bring an increase in reports of a particular scam that capitalizes on our fear of being cold. And after winter storms, unscrupulous businesses often prey on consumers seeking repair and clean-up services.
In the utility cut-off scam, someone claiming to be with your utility company says your bill is past due and must be paid immediately or your power or gas will be shut off. When the scam happens by phone, the scammer is usually convincing and insistent, demanding that you get a prepaid debit card and follow their instructions to pay right away. Sometimes this scam arrives by email rather than by phone, and the message includes a link labeled “Pay bill.”
These cold-hearted crooks are trying to stoke your anxiety about the weather and get you to react out of fear. To protect yourself, remember:
If you are actually in danger of having your service disconnected, a gas or electric utility company is required to give you written notice 10 days before they disconnect.
Utility companies don’t ask customers with delinquent accounts to pay by prepaid debit card to avoid having their service disconnected.
If you get a utility cut-off call, hang up and report it to the Attorney General’s Office at 1-877-5-NO-SCAM or online at ncdoj.gov.
If you’re concerned there may really be a problem with your account, contact the company directly. Use the phone number on your monthly bill, or look up the number.
If you need to make an online payment, go directly to the utility company’s website.
Another type of seasonal scam follows in the wake of winter storms, when door-to-door repair crews and tree removal services swoop into the area. After rough weather, don’t be a storm victim AND a scam victim. Instead, follow these tips:
Avoid contractors who go door-to-door offering services. Instead, get recommendations from friends, neighbors, co-workers and others who have had work performed on their homes recently. If an offer is “now or never,” find someone else to do the work.
Get a written contract. Don’t pay up front, and avoid paying with cash. Use a check or a credit card instead, and don’t make full payment until you are satisfied that the work has been done correctly.
If you’ve got damage, get in touch with your insurance company. Some companies require an adjuster’s approval before work can be done. If possible, take pictures and videos.
Don’t pay too much. Try to get three written estimates to compare, if possible. And remember that price gouging—charging too much in a time of crisis—is against North Carolina law when a state of disaster or emergency has been declared. When the price gouging law is in effect, my office can seek refunds for consumers who paid too much.
Stay warm this winter, and don’t take the bait if scammers threaten to pull the plug on your heat or try to take you to the cleaners in the aftermath of a winter storm.
Attorney General Roy Cooper and his staff work to help North Carolina homeowners steer clear of scams and unscrupulous business practices. We are here if you need assistance, but through consumer education efforts like these columns we hope to help homeowners avoid problems from the start.
Note to editors: This is one in a series of columns that Attorney General Cooper distributes to educate consumers. If you have questions, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org