This winter has been a chilly one, and many people throughout the greater Houston area may see higher electricity bills as a result.

Unfortunately, during times of extreme temperatures, the Better Business Bureau of Greater Houston and South Texas often sees an increase in utility scams. Scammers impersonating workers from the water, electric or gas company may call or show up at your door threatening to cut off of services unless you pay immediately.

Here is how the scam works:

You receive a call from someone identifying themself as a representative from your local electric or gas company.

They say you are late on your bill. You will need to pay immediately, or your heat will be shut off.

Instead of accepting payment by credit card or check, the caller wants you to pay by prepaid debit card. The scammer instructs you to purchase a card and call them back. Don't do it; prepaid debit cards are like cash. Once you transfer the money, you will be unable to redeem it.

Alternatively, the caller may ask that you give credit card information either directly over the phone or give you another phone number to call to provide your payment information.

Either way, it is best not to provide this sensitive information in response to an unsolicited call.

The Better Business Bureau of Greater Houston and South Texas offers the following tips to avoid these types of scams:

Confirm identities Scammers frequently use names and addresses of legitimate companies. Before handing over any money over the phone, confirm the caller's identity by calling the business or utility company yourself.

Ask to see credentials for anyone arriving at your home unsolicited Do not feel compelled to open the door to anyone you don't know, and always ask to see a company photo ID before allowing any worker into your home or business.

Consider it a warning sign if anyone claiming to be a utility worker is demanding immediate entrance to your home or office without having proper credentials.

Always contact your utility company directly using verifiable contact information found on bills or statements to confirm the legitimacy of a call or visit before providing additional information or access.

Be wary of pressure to pay immediately If you feel pressured for immediate payment or personal information, hang up the phone and call the customer service number on your utility bill. Legitimate utility companies will never call and threaten immediate service disconnection. A lengthy process takes place, typically involving multiple written notices to the customer advising the account is delinquent.

Avoid restrictive payment methods If a caller specifically asks you to pay by prepaid debit card or wire transfer, this is a huge warning sign. Your utility company will accept a check or credit card. It is also easier to dispute the charges when paying by check or credit card.

If you have experienced a utility scam or a similar scam, report it to the BBB at BBBHouston.org/scamtracker.

The Better Business Bureau is an unbiased nonprofit organization that sets and upholds high standards for fair and honest business behavior. Every year, more than 87 million consumers rely on BBB Business Reviews and BBB Wise Giving Reports to help them find trustworthy businesses and charities across North America. For information or to check the reliability of a company and find trustworthy businesses, visit www.bbbhouston.org, which includes our BBB Accredited Business Directory, or call 713-868-9500. Leah Napoliello is senior director of Investigative Services with the Better Business Bureau of Greater Houston and South Texas. Send questions regarding homeowner issues to Leah Napoliello, Better Business Bureau, 1333 West Loop South, Suite 1200, Houston, TX 77027, or e-mail her at lnapoliello@bbbhou.org. Include mailing address and phone number on letters and emails.