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posted: 8/24/2012 5:08 AM

New utility scam heats up with summer temperatures

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The record heat that has gripped most parts of the nation this summer has brought con artists out of the woodwork, promising $1,000 in federal aid to help homeowners pay their cooling bills.

Q. It has been terribly hot here in my home this summer, and my utility bills have soared. I recently received an email from a company stating that President Barack Obama has signed a bill that provides $1,000 to every homeowner to pay for their cooling expenses, but I didn't reply to it because I would have had to supply my Social Security number and a credit-card number to get the refund. Is this offer legitimate, or is it a scam?

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A. It's a scam. President Obama has not signed any such bill, but con men have seized upon the opportunity presented by the summer's near-record heat to cheat hundreds of thousands of homeowners out of their hard-earned cash.

The scheme is growing so quickly that groups ranging from individual utilities to the Better Business Bureau have recently issued urgent warnings about it. The con artists show up at homes, call, text or even contact homeowners through Facebook or other social media to make their fraudulent sales pitch, claiming that the feds will pay up to $1,000 of the borrower's utility or credit-card bills.

In some cases, a BBB representative said, victims are given phony bank account and routing numbers to use when paying their bills online -- but only after "registering" their Social Security numbers and other personal information. Others are told to enter the security number from the back of their credit card as their account number.

Either way, the homeowners are led to believe that bills have been paid after they have entered the information and that the reimbursement has been processed. Instead, all they get is a stolen identity, late fees for the unpaid bills and sometimes even an interruption in their utility service.

There are several ways to avoid this and other types of scams. Obviously, first and foremost is to avoid providing your Social Security number, credit-card information and the like over the phone or at your home unless you initiated the contact yourself and are confident about who you are speaking with, the BBB says.

Be wary if you receive a call from someone claiming to represent your utility company or another institution you deal with and then are pressured to provide personal information or to make an immediate payment. Instead, hang up the phone and call the company's customer-service number that appears on your official monthly statement.

Never allow anyone into your home to check electrical wiring, gas leaks or the like unless you have scheduled an appointment or have reported a problem. Also, ask utility employees for proper identification before opening the door.

Contact your bank and utility company immediately if you think you may have already fallen for this scam. Also, contact the three national credit bureaus -- Experian, TransUnion and Equifax -- and have a notation placed in your file to limit the potential damage to your credit score.

Q. I am presenting an offer to buy a house that is being marketed by the seller himself. Neither of us is using a real estate agent. When I present the offer, should I walk him through it step-by-step, or just focus on the purchase price and down payment first?

A. I rarely recommend that buyers or sellers try to complete a real estate transaction without the help of a real estate agent. But since both of you appear to be staunch do-it-yourselfers, it would be better to highlight the purchase price and down payment first and then move on to other details of the proposal later in the conversation.

By concentrating on the price and down payment at the outset, you will help to focus the seller's attention on the two most important aspects of the proposal. And if he finds them agreeable, it'll be much easier to reach a consensus on less-important items, such as which minor repairs should be made or which fixtures would be included in the transaction.

Q. I am a widower who lives on a small farm that has been in my family for four generations. If I create the type of living trust that you wrote about so my heirs could get my assets quickly after I die instead of going through probate, could I stipulate that my kids either live here themselves or rent it out so the farm would stay in the family?

A. Yes. Any assets you place in the trust could remain there and managed according to your written instructions even after you are gone.

This includes not only the family home, but most other types of items -- such as dividend-paying stocks that you do not want to be sold but would like to have the quarterly checks sent to your kids or grandkids. Check with an attorney or estate planner for details.

Real estate trivia: The most-common password homeowners and other computer users use to communicate with their bank via the Internet or to pay their monthly bills online is simply "password," according to a new survey by tech giant ZDNet.com. The second is "123456."

• For the booklet "Straight Talk About Living Trusts," send $4 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to David Myers, P.O. Box 4405, Culver City, CA 90231-4405.

2012, Cowles Syndicate Inc.

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