Wintry weather brings out an especially cold-hearted scam: the utility bill scam. Someone impersonating an electric and gas company representative contacts you claiming that there’s a problem with your payment—it’s overdue or denied—and if you don’t pay the bill immediately, your service will be disconnected.

Just in the past month, citizens from Connecticut to California have received utility bill scam calls or emails. Phone scammers might spoof caller ID by hijacking the number of a local utility and use utility terminology to seem more believable. Online scammers might email you from what looks like your utility’s website or they might send you a Google Calendar invitation with the subject line “Your electric bill is available.”

Either way, scammers are after your money, your credit card information, or other personal information like your bank account numbers, date of birth, or Social Security number that can be used for ID theft. 

Because local gas, water and electric companies do occasionally contact their customers by phone, it can be difficult to tell a scammer from a real agent. Similarly, fake emails can look eerily similar to the real thing. Here’s what you should know to protect yourself from a utility bill scam:

  • Prepaid debit cards are a red flag. If a caller demands instant payment using a prepaid debit card such as Green Dot MoneyPak, Vanilla or Reloadit prepaid cards, hang up immediately.
  • Don’t cave in to pressure to pay immediately. Utility companies will not send threatening emails to pay your bill. Customers who are behind on their payments receive written notices of a possible disconnection and how to prevent it.
  • Keep your utility scam antenna sharp. Look out for these kinds of bills and delete them. Bills that look like your normal bill but are from a different utility company, bills that look different from your normal bills, and bills that ask for your Social Security number, bank account or credit card numbers. Do not click on any links as they may contain malicious spam.
  • Be informed. If you suspect you’ve been a target of a utility scam, call the utility directly to verify whether you owe money. Find out what forms of payment your utility company accepts.
  • Never give out personal information. Don’t share your bank account numbers, credit card number, Social Security number or date of birth, even if the person seems legitimate.
  • Never allow anyone into your home without an appointment. Scammers sometimes pose as utility representatives claiming they need to check electrical wiring, natural gas pipes or an appliance. What they really want to do is get into your house and steal money or get your personal information. Even if you’ve requested service, this could be a utility scam. Ask to see proper identification. 

The threat of losing power or heat during chilly weather can be enough to freeze your common sense. Keep your cool. Report any incidents immediately to your utility company, using the official number found on your invoice.