Reports of people posing as utility workers, typically to perform various criminal acts, pop up frequently around the country. In most cases, criminals wear items such as hard hats and yellow vests to affect the appearance of a utility worker, though some go so far as to wear an actual stolen uniform. Others simply perpetrate phone scams.
Regardless of the crime, these frauds can cause headaches for utility companies, customers and law enforcement. Here are 11 examples of what con artists were actually trying to do when they showed up pretending to represent utilities:
1. THREATEN TO SHUT OFF POWER
Businesses in Salem, Ore., reportedly lost $3,800 after fake Portland General Electric or Northwest Natural Gas employees showed up announcing that overdue bills would have to be paid they would shut of power within a few hours.
2. STEAL COPPER OFF OF HOMES
This past week, two men dressed as utility workers stole copper from Houston’s True Vine Holiness Deliverance Temple. Thanks to their disguises, the men pulled off the crime in broad daylight, as people who saw them in the act said that nothing seemed out of the ordinary because of the men’s hardhats. The church discovered the $2,000 worth of copper had been stolen when they realized on Saturday that the church had no power. Worse still, they had no insurance, either.
3. STEAL VALUABLES INSIDE HOMES
A man from Chicago’s Oak Lawn suburb posed as a utility worker to steal jewelry from an elderly Palos Park woman in January. The 87-year-old woman thought nothing of it when she allowed 43-year-old Sonny Miller, wearing a white hard hat and carrying a tan shoulder bag, to enter her home so he could “check the outlets.”
Following Miller’s departure after his “partner” rang the doorbell, the woman discovered her dresser drawers were opened and costume jewelry was missing. Unfortunately, this is just one of several variations of robberies performed by supposed utility workers.
4. SCOUT HOMES FOR FUTURE ROBBERIES
In January, the San Diego Sheriff’s Department issued a warning about thieves posing as utility workers to scout homes for potential robberies. In one case, a man entered the home of an elderly woman in Solana Beach under the premise of being a local water district employee. He told the woman that he needed to conduct tests on her water system due to construction in the area, and, when asked for identification, said that his credentials were in his truck.
The man walked through the home and observed what was inside before leaving without performing any tests, prompting the sheriff’s department to remind residents that utility workers should always have an ID available and a prominent company or city logo on their uniform and vehicle.
5. LOOT HOMES FOLLOWING DISASTERS
While there were many reports of Hurricane Sandy bringing out the best in New Yorkers, the city still faced several reports of looters posing as Con Ed workers to loot homes and hold up victims. Police warned residents to be on the lookout for thieves posing as utility workers, saying they would arrest the scumbags on sight. In Hamilton, N.J., a pair of burglars posing as utility workers forced their way into a home following the disaster, assaulting the homeowner and a guest and stealing an unknown amount in cash and jewelry.
6. TRICK CUSTOMERS INTO SWITCHING COMPANIES
New York’s Public Services Commission received more than 200 complaints since 2011 regarding Liberty Power Corp.’s deceptive selling practices, which included disguising its employees as Con Ed and city employees and tricking residents into signing contracts presented as “consent forms.” Liberty even took over one man’s electrical bill even though he never signed the form.
Last week, the PSC gave Liberty, which does business in 14 states, one week to explain why it shouldn’t be barred from seeking new customers, and two weeks to come up with a reason why it shouldn’t be kicked out of the state entirely. Liberty, meanwhile, expressed in a statement that it was “extremely troubled” and would take “immediate action.”
7. TRICK CUSTOMERS INTO PAYING FOR UNNNEEDED REPAIRS
A senior alert issued on Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s website warns of a Galveston con man in the guise of a utility worker preying upon the elderly. According to Galveston police, the suspect told an elderly man that he was investigating a power outage, and then told the man that his electrical system needed to be replaced. After convincing the victim to write a $9,000 check, the conman went straight to the bank and cashed it, never to return and complete the supposed work that needed to be done.
8. COMMIT IDENTITY THEFT IN PERSON
In June 2010, Ameren Illinois warned downstate residents of men posing as utility workers in an attempt to steal residents’ identities. The company received more than a dozen complaints, with one resident reporting that a man in a hard hat wanted to come inside her home to check her meter—which was actually outdoors.
In a News-Gazette story, Leigh Morris, a spokesman for Ameren, reminded area residents that Ameren Illinois field representatives do not accept payments for service, and would not come to a customer’s door demanding payment or threatening to disconnect their service. Additionally, he said the best course of action for customers in such situations is to ask the person to wait outside while they call to verify the worker’s identification.
9. COMMIT IDENTITY THEFT OVER THE PHONE
In January, Dominion Virginia Power warned customers of a scammer posing as a utility worker and making calls to customers demanding immediate payments. The scammer would claim that customers’ power would be cut off unless they paid within hours of the call, or would alternatively claim that a problem with the customer’s electric meter could cause a fire if the meter was not originally replaced.
Dominion issued a statement saying it would never call customers to ask for specific payment information. Last year, another phone scam conned people all over the U.S. out of their Social Security, credit card and checking account numbers with an automated message that said it was part of an Obama administration utility payment program.
10. STEAL MANHOLE COVERS
Last May, a man wearing a yellow vest and using an automotive jack to lift a manhole cover out of the street raised suspicions in Queens, N.Y. The manhole cover was owned by Con Ed, who were told by witnesses that the man struggled to remove the cover from the street and into his truck.
The crime was at one time rare, but occurred at least 30 times last year in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx, according to Con Ed. Some of the manhole covers weigh as much as 300 pounds, and company officials assume the covers were being sold to scrap metal dealers. “I can’t imagine people are decorating their living rooms with them,” said Con Ed spokesman Michael Clendenin.
11. BE PEEPING TOMS
Of all the examples on the list, this is perhaps the most heinous. In 1993, former West Virginia University researcher Jack Edward Hawkins was convicted of raping three female students in their homes near the campus in 1985, 1989 and 1990. According to neighbor testimony, the 41-year-old was a known Peeping Tom who some women said had been seen dressed as a utility worker and prowling around homes.
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