Utilities warn of con artists posing as their employees

Md. widow, 86, was bilked out of $12,000 to replace faulty meter, BGE says

August 12, 2002|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Some people see Michael A. Fassio and welcome him right in. Most ask for a closer look at his identification before allowing him in the door. A handful call his bosses to make sure he is who he says he is.

Fassio said he can't blame those who doubt him. As senior meter technician for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., Fassio knows it takes a lot of trust to let a stranger into your home. He also knows that his BGE badge gives him instant credibility and access as a public utility employee.

That kind of trust is easy to abuse. BGE, Potomac Electric Power Co. in Washington and other utilities in the region flooded customers with warnings recently after an 86-year-old College Park woman was cheated out of most of her savings last month by men posing as utility employees. Telling her they were replacing a faulty meter, the men conned her into writing two $6,000 checks.

The same month, men posing as utility employees in Fairfax County, Va., used a similar scheme to bilk another elderly woman, charging her money to repair damaged power lines near her home.

Utilities say the problem pops up occasionally. Impostors attempt to gain access to customers' homes by showing phony identification and offering to do an energy audit or fix meters, or threatening to shut off service unless money is paid immediately.

"We tell customers that if there are any questions or concerns about an employee, by all means, they should call us," said Joe Bunch, director of meter services for BGE.

"Any kind of scam frustrates me, particularly when it's under the guise of a utility. It's a violation of our earned trust with the customer. Someone is trying to take advantage of that."

Bunch and his counterparts at other utilities say that if customers are suspicious of a worker, they shouldn't hesitate to call the police.

"There's no regularity, but these scams do happen from time to time," said Robert Dobkin, a Pepco spokesman. "It's a scam people have been using for years to gain entry into someone's home. Often, it happens to elderly customers who may be intimidated. The problem is that when it happens, it puts everyone under suspicion. We tell our customers it's good to be cautious."

In most cases, utilities give customers advance notice before workers show up on their doorsteps to fix meters, replace old ones or re-program timers.

Fassio said the only time he surprises customers is when he is required by the Maryland Public Service Commission, the state agency that regulates utilities, to randomly test 6,000 electric meters every year. By law, he is not allowed to schedule appointments for those tests.

"Most of the customers are surprised, because they're picked at random and they're shocked to see me standing there," Fassio said. "But they generally let me in. They have a perfect right to refuse, too. I don't force my way in the door."

In all other cases, utilities advise customers:

Ask workers for identification before allowing a stranger to enter your home. Utility workers have badges bearing name, photograph and identification number.

Do not pay for repair work at time of service. BGE and Pepco will bill customers, for their convenience and safety. Also keep in mind that customers are never billed for meter repairs or maintenance, because the meters belong to the utility. The only employees authorized to accept payments are utility collections agents.

Call the utility if you have any doubts, and report suspicious activity to the police.

"A customer we approached the other day said he knew about the [College Park] scam," Fassio said on a recent morning as he was repairing meters. "I'm sure it's on their mind. It's something that doesn't make my job any easier. I have to gain people's trust to get inside the house or even work around it.

"It just makes things harder all the way around."

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