If scams are a numbers game, there’s hardly a better racket than calling people and telling them something is wrong with their Social Security.
Almost everyone in the United States has a Social Security number. One in five of them receive a monthly check from the Social Security Administration (SSA). In 2022, the Federal Trade Commission received 27,054 reports of SSA impostors, with dollar losses from these scams exceeding $75.7 million.
We’ve dissected the four most common Social Security scams to help you recognize them and protect yourself and your loved ones.
1. Arrest Threats
According to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), the most common Social Security scam involves someone impersonating a police officer or an official and threatening to arrest a victim.
“Posing as law enforcement, the scammer calls and threatens the intended victim with immediate arrest if they do not comply with the scammer’s requests,” warns the BBB. “The scammer may claim that the victim’s Social Security number has been compromised and used in a crime.”
In September 2021, an SSA impersonator reached out to an Alaska woman, claiming her name had been tied to an arrest warrant issued in Texas. Pretending to be a law enforcement officer, another scammer informed the woman she’d be given a new Social Security number to protect her identity. This scammer added that the government would seize the woman’s assets.
The woman then was instructed to convert her money into government bonds. To purchase the bonds, she’d need to buy gift cards. The woman was warned not to inform anyone about this situation.
Scammers told her to send photos of the gift cards and PIN numbers to the ‘U.S. Department of Treasure,’ and officers would meet with her to cancel the arrest warrant and give her a new Social Security number.
The woman eventually suspected she was being scammed, but only after losing $4,200 to gift card purchases.
SSA will never, ever call and threaten to arrest you. They certainly won’t ask you to pay any fines in gift cards.
This may seem obvious, but scammers are very crafty and can make themselves appear to be legitimate. They may already have basic personal information like your name, phone number, and address, but data like this is easy for anyone to find online. It doesn’t mean your identity has been stolen.
Never confirm any personal information over the phone, and it’s best to hang up immediately once you understand you’re talking to a scammer. Shaming them is optional before hanging up, and it might even make you feel better.
2. Demands for Personal Information
Scammers are always hunting for personal information like your Social Security number via any means available, from mail and phone calls to text messages, email and social media.
A common scam is for someone posing as an SSA employee to call you asking for your Social Security number and other personal data.
When you call the Social Security Administration, they will ask for your Social Security number in order to identify you. When Social Security calls you—which happens rarely, for very specific reasons—they already have your information and would never require you to tell them your Social Security number.
In addition to phone calls, a scammer might send you a legitimate-looking email supposedly from SSA. You might be directed to a website that looks official to update your information, including your Social Security number. Always verify that you are at a website ending in .gov when you’re trying to work with a federal agency.
In these situations, scammers merely want your Social Security number and other information in order to commit identity theft and other crimes.
“Never give any part of your Social Security number to anyone who contacts you,” warns Michigan’s attorney general.
Be aware of the many tactics employed by Social Security phone scammers:
- Scammers may use legitimate names and phone numbers of SSA or SSA Office of the Inspector General employees. Don’t depend on names or caller IDs to verify that a caller is actually a government employee. Many scam calls spoof real government phone numbers.
- Scammers may send official-looking letters or reports by mail, email, text or social media in an attempt to prove they are legitimate government workers. Letters may appear to be from SSA, featuring an official letterhead and government jargon—and also littered with misspellings and typos.
Keep in mind that SSA typically only calls people who recently applied for Social Security benefits or are already receiving benefits, or people whose records need to be updated or who asked that the agency call them. Besides these cases, the agency won’t call you.
Additionally, SSA never sends emails seeking your personal information, such as your Social Security number. If you receive such a request, do not click on the links or type in your personal information.
The agency says it sends emails or text messages only if you’ve opted to get them, and then only under certain circumstances. Either when you’ve subscribed to Social Security updates, or your identity is being verified for your online Social Security account.
“We may email or text you about programs and services,” writes SSA on its scam warning site, “but we will never ask for a return call to an unknown number or ask for personal information.”
3. Social Security Number Suspension Warnings
Some savvy scammers scare people by threatening to suspend their Social Security number. They may claim that you’ve been the victim of identity theft, that you’ve engaged in illegal activity or that there’s some other issue with your Social Security number, account or benefits.
Here are the facts: A Social Security number cannot be suspended. These scams are just more attempts to steal your personal information, such as your Social Security number, in order to commit identity fraud and other crimes.
“In this variation of [an imposter] scheme, the caller pretends to be protecting you from a scam while he’s trying to lure you into one,” the FTC says.
The Social Security Administration will send you a letter—but won’t initiate a phone call—if there’s ever a problem with your Social Security number.
Generally, the agency will contact you by phone only if you’ve asked to be called or you’ve got a pending Social Security matter.
“Never give out or confirm personal information over the phone, via email or on a website until you’ve checked out whoever is asking you for it,” advises the FTC.
4. Requests for Money
Somebody posing as an SSA employee may try to rip you off by requesting a payment with a gift card, a prepaid debit card, a wire transfer, or cash.
For instance, a phony employee might promise to boost your benefits in exchange for compensation. Or a scammer may tell a potential victim to buy gift cards to avoid arrest or having their benefits cut off.
From January 2018 through September 2021, one quarter (26.6%) of fraud victims who reported losing money say it happened when they were tricked into providing the numbers on the back of a gift card or reloadable card, the FTC says. Gift cards from Target, Google Play, Apple, eBay and Walmart are among the most requested by scammers.
From January 2021 through September 2021, more than 12,200 people reported losing $35.5 million to impostors through gift card scams, according to the FTC.
“Scammers favor gift cards because they are easy for people to find and buy, and they have fewer protections for buyers compared to some other payment options. Scammers can get quick cash, the transaction is largely irreversible, and they can remain anonymous,” warns the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).
The CFPB says you should never pay a government fee or fine with a gift card, a prepaid debit card, a wire transfer or cash. “Scammers ask for payment this way because it’s difficult to trace and recover,” the CFPB says.
While it is possible to owe money to SSA, that is only in situations where you received benefits you weren’t eligible for, or received more than you were supposed to. If you do owe money to SSA, they’ll send you a letter in the mail detailing payment options, none of which involve gift cards.
Scam Insights from a Former SSA Employee
Forbes Advisor editor Rae Hartley Beck worked for the Social Security Administration for nearly six years as a Claims Specialist, receiving nine performance awards in that time frame. Here are her insights on Social Security scams.
While Social Security does occasionally call without notice to follow up on recent applications or to conduct periodic Supplemental Security Income (SSI) reviews, they don’t just call random people.
If you haven’t recently applied for benefits, ignored an SSI review notice, or sent something in that would necessitate a callback, Social Security won’t call you. It is not possible for your Social Security number to be used in a crime or be suspended. Social Security will never ask for payment over the phone and will never accept payment in the form of gift cards.
When in doubt, you can always check for recent letters or activity in your My Social Security account at SSA.gov. Setting up your own account can also prevent others from accessing it and protect your identity and future benefits.
If you are concerned your Social Security number or personal information has been compromised you can also freeze your credit for free with the three credit bureaus: Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian. Changing your Social Security number takes significant evidence that harm has already occurred and is not recommended, as your old number and new number still remain linked for life.
If you believe you’ve been duped by a Social Security scammer, call SSA’s Office of the Inspector General at 800-269-0271 or file a complaint with the FTC.
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