'Shutoff Swindle' Targets Homeowners for Identity Theft

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By Victor Searcy

The mercury is dropping around the country, but scammers are turning up the heat with a tried-and-true cold weather scam: the Shutoff Swindle. Bad guys pose as utility workers and threaten to shut off your service claiming unpaid bills. Their goal: To get your personally identifiable information to commit identity theft.

They'll encourage you to settle the invoice by providing account details -- name, address, the last four digits of your Social Security number -- and a credit card number. Don't fall for it. This Shutoff Swindle has been going on for several years, and it tends to proliferate when the heat is on in winter and the air-conditioning is running in summer. Your quest for comfort helps reinforce a need to immediately resolve supposed service problems.

In recent weeks -- especially during the recent Polar Vortex -- legitimate utility companies have issued warnings about an uptick in this scheme. Take steps to protect yourself with these tips:

Get smart. Remember that most utilities will mail at least one, if not several, past-due notices before terminating service. If you pay your bills and are told it wasn't received, contact your service provider by calling the customer service number listed on your bills.

Be skeptical of Caller ID. It may display the name and phone number of your service provider, but that's easily done with computer-based phone lines or the use of spoofing software.

Don't divulge personal information. Providing your credit card number to an unsolicited caller is enough for them to go on a quick online shopping spree. Other data requested by utility scammers can be used to open fraudulent accounts in your name. Researchers say that knowing your birthdate and place of birth may help scammers guess the first five digits of your SSN. The hardest to guess are the last four, requested for "verification purposes."

Be wary of utility workers who show up at your door unannounced. They should call beforehand. But, know, too, that utility companies never dispatch employees to your home to collect payment. Finally, if you suspect you've become a victim of identity theft, don't panic. Call one of your providers -- an insurer, bank or credit union, or membership organization. They may already cover you for identity management services.

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