If you've got electricity, your personal information could be in jeopardy. Local 2 Investigates has discovered millions of us may be providing financial information to identity thieves without knowing it.
When you set up a new electric account, you're required to provide your social security number to the electric company. In the end -- you have no idea who you're talking to.
Keshia Cherry, 35, was an associate customer service representative at CenterPoint Energy until she was terminated the same day Local 2 broadcasted this story. It was her latest job in the electricity industry.
Local 2 Investigates confirmed she also worked for Gexa Energy, StarTex Power and MegaEnergy. Police believe she stole the social security number of a woman by the same last name while at MegaEnergy in 2011.
Keshia used Andrea Cherry's social security number to open an electricity account at a home she was renting near Houston's Medical Center, said police.
The victim only discovered it when Keshia Cherry skipped on the $553 electric bill and the delinquent account appeared on Andrea Cherry's credit report.
"I started with a credit score of over 800," Andrea Cherry told consumer expert Amy Davis. "With one negative report, it went below 700."
The one delinquent account meant Andrea couldn't refinance her Kingwood home. When Andrea Cherry discovered her identity-theft suspect worked inside the electric industry, she knew the consequences were more dire for all Houstonians.
"She's working for a major energy company in Houston," said Andrea. "She has access to 4 million-plus people's personal identification information."
Local 2 and police contacted CenterPoint Energy. It suspended Keshia Cherry's access to customer information.
Cherry was hired in Jan. 2013.A CenterPoint spokesperson said they checked all accounts that Cherry had access to and determined that no customer information was compromised.
CenterPoint Energy said "protecting sensitive customer information is a top priority."
All of Cherry's former employers declined Local 2's request for an on-camera interview, but StarTex and Gexa emailed statements, posted at the end of this article.
MegaEnergy was bought out by TXU in January. TXU said it bought only MegaEnergy's customers and not its employees; so it had no information on Cherry's employment.
When Local 2 visited her Humble home in late April, Cherry pretended we had the wrong person.
"Ok, so Keshia, where do you work now?" Davis asked the woman who answered her front door.
"My name is not Keshia," she replied.
"Ok. Who are you?"
"I'm not Keshia. And you have a camera at my doorstep unauthorized, so I'm about to call the police."
Less than two weeks later, that same woman, identified as Keshia Cherry, was arrested by Houston police. She's charged with fraudulent use of identifying information.
But electric insiders told Local 2 the fraud is larger than just one rogue employee.
StarTex Power researched its own customer records and found about 150 accounts opened with stolen social security numbers. It notified customers who were at risk, filed a police report with the Houston Police Department, and informed the Texas Public Utility Commission.
In an email Local 2 Investigates obtained from the PUC, a StarTex executive called the scam "pervasive."
Insiders said after those stolen security numbers are obtained, con artists then set up at flea markets and malls offering electricity to strangers with no credit check for a flat fee. The scammers pocket the cash and use the stolen socials to set up the accounts.
"We're kind of always behind the 8-ball in these cases," explained HPD Sgt. John Shirley, who works in the Financial Crimes division.
Shirley said most accounts are set up online. It's as easy as typing in someone else's social security number with the address where you want electricity.
"A criminal takes advantage of lax internal controls in a company and that's where they're kind of intelligent," Shirley said. "They'll look for the holes."
"Is it too easy to set up an electric account just using someone else's social?" Davis asked Direct Energy's Senior Vice President Rob Comstock.
"No, I don't think that's the case," said Comstock.
Direct Energy has an investigator on staff whose sole job it is to search customer data for social security numbers used on multiple accounts, a red flag that points to identity theft.