Help! Are "Free Light Bulbs" From Con Ed A Scam?

Reader Fiona wants to know if the people calling from “Con Ed” offering “free light bulbs” are running a scam.

Today my mother received a series of calls from someone claiming to be calling from Con Ed. After asking for someone who doesn’t exist (at least not in our family) they informed her that our apartment building was participating in a new Con Ed program to replace all old light bulbs with new energy saving light bulbs free of charge. It sounded way too good to be true so she told them she wasn’t sure about her availability and hung up. After checking the lobby, the internet and asking the doorman if he’d heard anything about this “program” she returned home to find two messages from the “Con Ed” employees telling her that they could completely work with her schedule and that they would call back later.

It all sounds very odd to me.

Well, Fiona, the program is real but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be wary of strangers who want to come to your house and give you free light bulbs. In the New York City area, there’s a program that aims to reduce summer power outages by helping people save electricity. The program pays subcontractors to go to eligible buildings and install energy efficient light bulbs. Having said that, we did see a report on WCBS about a subcontractor stealing jewelry while he was supposed to be installing the light bulbs.

“They’re terrific, they’re really good,” said George Burke as he described the new energy efficient light bulbs Con Edison offered for free, but Burke says he ended up paying for them with valuable jewelry.

Last month, two subcontractors came to Burke’s house to install the energy efficient light bulbs. While Burke filled out paperwork with one of them, the other went around the house changing light bulbs.

After having the new bulbs installed, Burke noticed a ten-karat diamond ring and a one-karat ruby garnet worth about $20,000 were gone.

“This right here is the dish where they were in,” pointed Burke. “So you can see how close the lamp was to the dish.”

That’s when he realized one of the subcontractors hired by Con Edison was the culprit.

A detective investigating the subcontractor recently contacted Burke.

According to the detective, Burke wasn’t the only victim. Several complaints, all of them from Staten Island had come in, and all of the victims had recently gotten their light bulbs replaced with one of the new energy saving kind.

So we guess the moral of this story is that there may be such a thing as a free light bulb, but you’d better keep an eye on the guy who installs it.

Con Ed Subcontractor Allegedly Stole From Homes [WCBS]


Edit Your Comment

  1. timmus says:

    Anyone want to train a hidden camera on a lamp next to some fake diamond jewelry? Sounds like a good project for a David Horowitz style undercover sting.

  2. MissTicklebritches says:

    I’d meet them in the lobby with a bag of my old bulbs and take the new ones up to install myself.

  3. GavinEstecado says:

    I thought I read a story a few months back about an energy/utilities company sending its customers compact florescent light bulbs in the mail and then charging some stupid fee monthly that ended up costing 3x as much then buying them at a hardware store in the end. Whoa, sorry about the killer run-on sentence…

    Anyone remember that?

  4. Carencey says:

    @GavinEstecado: not sure which company that was, but fairly sure it was here in Maryland…they all managed to find some way to line their pockets in the name of promoting energy efficiency, either giving away lightbulbs or coupons and then charging everyone a fee that more than paid for the cost of it.

  5. socalrob of the 24 and a half century says:


    Yeah there was a company sending them out then charging it on the bill, someone called and complained and they were forced to return the money iirc.

    So these bulbs… I don’t know about in new york but here in Los Angeles I went to my local Home Depot 3 days ago and bought 3x 4 packs of the equal to 60 watt ones and 3x 2 packs of the equal to 100 watt ones for like $2.86 each pack. And these were nice and came in a biodegradable easy to open and store square cardboard box rather than the P.I.T.A blister packs that take up too much space.

    These bulbs are cheap, replace them yourself. Unless your a business with florescent bar lights, SoCal Edison replaces those for free here. A local business owner I know took advantage of that offer and saved a nice chunk of change, lowered the heat in her store (net cafe, so any amount of less heat helps) and helped the environment.

  6. snazz says:

    @GavinEstecado: that story was here:

  7. Shappie says:

    Who leaves $20k worth of jewlery just sitting out?!

  8. organicgardener says:

    PG&E has the same program in California. Someone came to our office offering the same thing, and we referred him to the building manager. The owner ultimately agreed and within a week, all of our building’s old fluorescent tubes were replaced with newer, more efficient versions. I understand that the owner is happy with the savings.

  9. bohemian says:

    Unless your disabled or really old you should be able to change your own light bulbs.

    CFL bulbs really are not that expensive. They have them in bulk packs at Lowes and Sam’s.

  10. jdmba says:

    … and require Hazmat should you break one. I can’t believe Pres. Bush signed their mandatory use into law.

    For those not up on current events, they have an extreme amount of mercury in them which, when shattered, requires about $2,000 of cleanup.

  11. Skunky says:

    I dunno if I would trust anything from a company called “Conned.”

  12. balthisar says:

    CFL’s (most of ’em, anyway) still don’t work with dimmers and X10, though. I probably save equal energy by dimming my lights than by changing to a full brightness, low energy bulb. Plus — you know — remote control and programmability.

  13. faeriefly says:


    No they don’t. They contain less mercury than a mercury thermometer.

  14. @jdmba: 4.0 mg of mercury isn’t really an extreme amount. $2000 USD for that amount of cleanup though is about right. If I recall correctly the instance you are refering to was on Berber carpeting. Had the bulb broken on a less absorabative surface it would probably have been less.

    It’s important to remember that all Fluorescent lamps (not just the compact ones) contain mercury.

  15. sir_eccles says:

    @valarmorghulis: Plus it’s mercury vapor for which standard procedure is to open the window.

  16. magic8ball says:

    @jdmba: Not according to Snopes [] and Treehugger []

  17. TacoChuck says:

    Here is the latest Gov study about the CFL breakage:
    It makes it sound not good. They do say consider disposal of the carpet if it is on carpet.
    Referenced from the EPA which based its recommendations on the above study:

  18. ColoradoShark says:

    @jdmba: Let me get all Wikipedia on you and say, “Citation needed”. From a reliable knowledgeable source, not someone hysterical.

  19. Wormfather is Wormfather says:

    The tag on this article says “con ed”, shouldnt there be another n where that space is?


  20. jackal676 says:

    A lot of thermometers have mercury in them, too, and people stick ’em where the sun don’t shine. As long as you’re careful in the handling of said item, it’s not really the terror that people make it out to be. My CFL bulbs seem a lot sturdier and less prone to breaking than a standard light bulb anyway.

  21. kable2 says:

    i used to play with mercury when i was a kid. Big ‘ol blobs from things like mercury switches. never killed me.

    i call bullshit on a cleanup required. seriously people, there is more mercury in your fish and chips lol

  22. ironchef says:

    home depot collects used CFL bulbs for recycling.

  23. craftypants says:

    I don’t know about in the US but here in the UK we get free bulbs quite often from places like our electricity suppliers. I know my mum has gotten loads.

    Whilst I see the problem for the elderly/infirm or disabled changing their own bulbs but it might be better to ask for the bulbs and ask a trusted friend/relative/neighbor to put them in for you, minimising access to the home for strangers.

  24. vk2tds says:

    The idea of replacing lightglobes has to do with Carbon Credits. The cost of replacing a light globe might be only $1 in bulk, but the carbon credit might be worth $10. It is a strange world, but that is how things go. In some parts of the world, the Boy Scouts are being paid $2 per globe to replace light globes in houses.

  25. @GavinEstecado: TWO utilities in MD are running that scam – we give you light bulb, and you HAVE to pay for them in your monthly bill. And the state utility commission has ruled they have the right to do this.

  26. Meg Marco says:

    @jdmba: That myth has been debunked on this very website. [] Please stop spreading this lie.

  27. AD8BC says:

    Recycle your used but working incandescent bulbs!

    Send them to me so I can stockpile them for my dimming fixtures!

  28. urban_ninjya says:

    @timmus: I miss that show “Fight Back” he use to do. It was a consumer advocate show where they reported on some of the things we get here on consumerist.

    Too bad the network sponsor weren’t really behind that show idea.

  29. bohemian says:

    If you buy the CFL bulbs with the outside cover that makes them look like old Edison style bulbs you don’t have to worry about the mercury leaking if they break issue since they are contained.

    Our city drop off facility takes them for free. I keep a small plastic storage tub by our recycling bins to put DOA ones in.

  30. I’ll keep my incadescents (and my diamond rings) thank you very much!

  31. ztoop says:

    Here in Massachusetts there were instant rebates courtesy of NStar at Home Depot we could use to get a serious discount. No need to deal with shady contractors.

  32. billy says:

    Well, part of the problem is that the energy company is called Com Ed, not Con Ed. It stands for Commonwealth Edison.

  33. Bramble73 says:

    @rubinow: Only in Illinois, in New York it stands for Consolidated Edison.

  34. Rider says:

    Why not just call Con Ed and ask them?

  35. Landru says:

    Here in CA most hardware stores have the CFLs for .99 or less, subsidized by PG&E. I saw them at Ace for .39. Some people buy them and sell them for a profit on eBay.

  36. Jon Mason says:

    Hmm… my electricity provider has run promotions like this to try and get you to use less energy. Which begs the question – why does the person who sells you electricity want you to use less of it? Comcast doesnt send me free books in the mail so I watch less TV – why do utilities want you to use less of their product?

  37. thelushie says:

    My aunt’s electric company gave them free CFLs. Now I want her to check her bill to make sure she isn’t paying for them. I just went to Sam’s and bought a ton of them. I still have an unopen box in the closet.

  38. Nofsdad says:

    Our electric company, Southern California Edison, did the same thing but they gave the bulbs to our building maintenance guy and he brought them around and installed them.

  39. SacraBos says:

    I’ve been looking into LED bulbs for some applications. They are even more energy efficient, no mercury worries, and last even longer. However, the problem seems to be finding ones that have the same lumens as a 60w bulb. Some of the brightest ones only produce the effective light of a 30w bulb.

  40. endless says:


    Power companies have two ways of getting power:

    1:making it
    2: buying it

    i believe there are legal reasons they more or less HAVE to get you power unless absolutely unable to, so when they can’t generate enough power, they have to buy it…. from other companies…. which charge them…sometimes alot. I am leaving blanks in there for you to fill.

    One time while helping a customer at my store I got to have a fairly long chat about it. He was a senior engineer type at a local power company so it was rather fascinating. The companies will watch each others power producing ability. If a plant goes off line, they will hike up the rate they sell their power for. cutthroat business. So while the companies want to sell you as much as possible, they also want to not have to buy from competitors.

    There also might be some back end kick backs for companies lowering their carbon footprints as people have been talking about earlier in this post. So there are at least 2 reasons they might want to do this.

  41. vpsychward1 says:

    @masonreloaded: I think that the demand on the energy infrastructure needs to be lessened. Con Ed mostly works in and around NYC and at times (like hot summer months) their infrastructure is overwhelmed. It is what would cause brown-outs. While these phenomena may be less infrequent nowadays, they are still possible. I imagine they cause equipment damage. And that damage is far more costly than replacing some silly bulbs that they order by the 50,000.

    One more thing is that as demand increases, costs increase. Then customers’ bills increase. Higher bills will translate to more unpaid bills in a time like this. The costs to recoup those funds is probably greater than buying the bulbs as well.

  42. Rachacha says:

    @jdmba: Here is the EPA guidance on consumers for cleanup of CFL bulbs

    Certainly a more detailed process than cleaning up a standard incandescent, but in the rare instance that I might break a bulb, the cleanup process is not much of an inconvenience.

  43. Rachacha says:

    @timmus: I did that once shortly after our house was built. We gave the key to the builder so that they could make some repairs after we had mved in, and we wanted to see what they were up to. They were cheap cameras, but have paid for themselves many times over. I was able to track the builder as he moved throughout the house making repairs, and we used them in the office to catch an employee with some sticky fingers.

  44. petitcerise says:

    We had a similar company come to our house but they didn’t change the lightbulbs. I did a search on them on the BBB before they came and they were legit. They put a blanket thing on our electric water heater, sealed around the house where air could escape, and did little minor energy saving things for free. They gave us 2 free energy saving lightbulbs as well. If we we would have qualified, they would have blown insulation in our attic but we didn’t because we had a gas heater. They said the local EC has a fund for this and everyone is elgible.

  45. Nytmare says:

    “Hi, hi, hi, may I come in? I’m really itching to install these light bulbs in your light sockets. Oh, uh, can you help me put your old bulbs in my van? It’s just outside, down the block a ways. I’ll just stay here and install the rest of these bulbs.”

  46. Tonguetied says:

    “Our city drop off facility takes them for free. I keep a small plastic storage tub by our recycling bins to put DOA ones in.”

    When you say DOA do you mean Dead On Arrival? If so why don’t you take them back to the store for a refund? If you just mean the bulb has burnt out I thought those things were supposed to last 5 years?

  47. Evil_Otto would rather pay taxes than make someone else rich says:

    I work for a company that participates in programs similar to what we’re talking about here, where the utility will give away a few bulbs ($75 worth in one case) to raise awareness of energy conservation, in the hopes that then the customer will replace their incandescent bulbs with CFLs. I’d like to try to address some concerns here..

    @jdmba: That’s a common misconception. Broken CFLs do not require $2000 worth of cleanup. True, there is mercury in them (as there is in ALL flourescent bulbs, it’s the way the things work), however, it’s a very small amount. The energy saved through their use would otherwise be generated by power plants that release mercury into the environment adds MORE mercury into the environment, so there’s less mercury involved even if you landfill the CFL.

    @balthisar: While I can’t speak for x10, there are CFLs that support dimmers; we sell a number of them.

    @Tonguetied: We (and other vendors sell recyclepacks that take about 6 ‘normal’ size bulbs and have pre-paid shipping, so all you have to do is put the bulbs in, seal the box, and put it in the mail.

    If I can answer more questions, please feel free to ask. I don’t pretend to be an expert (I’m the web developer here, not one of the support or sales people) but I’ll answer what I can.

  48. How many Con Ed workers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

  49. mariospants says:

    Hmmm… this would have been a very good way for those “fixed rate” electricity brokers to get their foot into your door, too.

  50. KRSMAV says:

    I used to work for The Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Inc.

    The company NEVER refers to itself as Con Ed — only Con Edison. Any call from “Con Ed” is a scam.

  51. Haltingpoint says:

    I’m kind of shocked the energy scammers (blanking on their name now…the ones that go door to door w/ aggressive sales people to switch you over to their overpriced plan claiming to be from ConEd) haven’t latched on to this.

    “Hi ma’am, I’m here to give you your free bulbs from ConEd”

    “ooo, thank you young man”

    “If you’ll just sign here on this piece of paper that I’ve mostly covered up so you can’t see the details, it will confirm that you have received your free bulbs (and switched to our scummy overpriced service).”

  52. LesterGaze says:


    1. Thanks for calling.
    2. May I get your name?
    3. May I get your company?
    4. May I have a telephone number with which to call you back?
    5. No, you cannot have my CC#, DOB, SSN, MMN, or any other information.
    6. If you are legitimate, I will call you back in 2-3 minutes.
    7. Reverse directory lookup for phone number (adjacent digits count).
    8. Call number given, ask for name given.
    9. Explain security cautions, and complete the deal.
    10. If any of steps 2-7 fail, contact appropriate local authorities or
    reporting agencies.

    Rule #0: Don’t be a stupid consumer.

  53. KatieKate93 says:

    Somebody from our local electric company (not ConEd) talked my rather naive roommate into a visit like this many years ago. Believe it or not, in addition to replacing the light bulbs and checking out our appliances, he also clipped plastic to our really old windows to minimize drafts, which saved us a noticeable amount of money.

    In retrospect, I think it’s much better that he happened to get her on the phone. I would have probably hung up.

  54. lihtox says:

    Even if the callers don’t steal your jewelry, they could be stealing your perfectly good incandescent light bulbs and replacing them with defective or even dead fluorescents. I’m not sure such a scam would be worth the effort, but it’s possible I suppose.

    In Chicago a decade ago or so, you could bring your monthly electric bill to certain retail locations and get X free lightbulbs, each month. I don’t remember if this was an optional program or not, and I know they discontinued it, but it would be a useful way to get people to try the CFLs.

  55. Meathamper says:

    Con Ed. Nice name.

  56. BlazerUnit says:

    @ironchef: And so will your electric company, depending on where you live. I know the local electric cooperatives have been educating customers on CFLs and have conducted recycling effort at each service office.

  57. Anonymous says:

    I had the free light bulb guys’ here in my home in Staten Island when the proram just started. The bulbs were ugly and I didn’t want them in my beautiful ceiling fans. As for the installers when they got out of the truck all 3 of them they looked like they were dug out of the gutter all trashey looking. I was glad I sent them on there way and opted out of the program. If I do decide to get the bulbs in the near future my jewelry box will be locked up.