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If you or a loved one receives Social Security benefits, you'll want to be aware of con artists who claim to represent the Social Security Administration. These fraudsters attempt to leverage seniors' dependence on federal benefits and their implicit trust of federal authorities to extract cash or personal information for purposes of identity theft.
Social Security scams are unfortunately common, having drawn 39,000 reported incidents and duping victims out of more than $23 million in 2021, according to Federal Trade Commission data.
Common Social Security Scams
Social Security scammers are constantly updating and shifting their schemes, but they stick to a handful of basic tactics. Here's an overview of their most common ploys, and tips that can help you avoid them.
1. Numbers Racket
A favorite tactic of Social Security scammers is to claim that your Social Security number (SSN) will be suspended (along with the benefits associated with it) unless you act immediately. The call or email will ask the potential victim to "verify" their SSN before the problem can be solved.
Never give out your SSN to anyone over the phone or through a web form or email. Doing so can give crooks the ability to apply for credit in your name and opens the door to other forms of identity theft. The real Social Security Administration won't reach out by phone. And it already knows your SSN, so it won't ask you for it as verification. (If you call the agency yourself, you may be asked for your SSN, but the administration doesn't need confirmation of the number when it reaches out to you.)
2. Bogus Payments and Phony Fees
In a variation on the SSN-extraction ploy (and one which may be used in conjunction with it), the scammer tells you by phone, email or text message that there's discrepancy with your Social Security account and you must submit a payment to protect your benefits.
The payment may be characterized as:
- Correction of an overpayment or shortfall in your account
- A bogus fee, penalty or fine
Payment may be requested in the form of:
- Wire transfers
- Cryptocurrency purchases
- Cash or gift card payments submitted by mail
No matter how the payment request is presented, don't believe it. The Social Security Administration doesn't use phone or digital communications to demand immediate payment. While overpayments of benefits may occasionally occur and require reimbursement, that can only be done electronically through the U.S. Treasury's secure Pay.gov web portal or via your financial institution's electronic bill payment service. You can also make payments by check or money order at a Social Security Administration office.
3. Empty Enhancements
Another angle Social Security fraudsters take is to promise bogus boosts in payments or other benefits, requiring only that you call a phone number or visit a website to request or accept it. In the course of finalizing this boon to your service, they'll ask for your SSN, name, address and maybe even the number of the bank account where you want your extra cash deposited. In other words, they'll use empty promises to extract all the information they need to make you a victim of credit fraud.
The Social Security Administration does offer periodic cost of living increases in benefits to keep pace with inflation, but you don't have to do anything to receive them. When this increase is doled out, you'll be notified by mail and you won't have to take any action to receive it.
4. Phony Callback Numbers
Social Security fraudsters have been known to use "spoofed" caller IDs that cause your phone to display the Social Security Administration customer service number or another published phone number when your phone rings.
Instead of answering these calls, call the Social Security Administration by keying in its customer service number. It will contact you by mail if it needs to communicate with you, so it's best to let any call from "Social Security" go to voicemail. If you want to verify your account is in good standing, call the administration by keying in the customer service number you can find on its official website.
5. Impressive Impersonations
Scammers can be very convincing in their efforts to appear legitimate. Besides masquerading behind official phone numbers, their letterhead (on paper or email) may look like the real deal, and some scammers even use the names, titles and fake photocopies of ID cards and badges with the names of Social Security officials whose credentials are published online. As a result, some victims have been taken in even after performing due diligence by researching the purported sources of bogus communications.
The key to avoiding these traps is to know Social Security policy. Once again, the Social Security Administration:
- Never seeks payments by phone.
- Only sends out emails if you've signed up to receive them.
- Never makes threats or demands immediate payment.
If there's any doubt—and there always should be some doubt if someone claiming to be an administration rep reaches out unexpectedly—call them back using the number available on the official Social Security Administration website for a reality check.
How to Report Social Security Scams
- Visit the website for the Social Security Administration's Office of the Inspector General (OIG).
- Click the "Report Scams" button.
- Complete the digital questionnaire, providing as much detail about the scam as possible.
- As required at the bottom of the web form, choose a five-digit PIN to associate with your submission, and write it down or store it in a secure file on your phone or digital device.
- Use the PIN when following up on the status of your complaint, and if you hear from anyone following up on the matter, confirm that they know your PIN before providing them with any information.
- Cooperate as necessary with OIG staff, and supply them with any information they request, such as copies of correspondence, voicemails and the like.
How to Protect Your Personal Information
Avoiding Social Security scams should be part of a broader effort of protecting personal data online, over the phone and even in the real world. To that end, here are some good practices to adopt:
- Second-guess caller ID. Don't trust caller ID for calls from anyone but friends and family members,
- Don't pick up unknown calls. Get in the habit of letting calls from unknown sources go to voicemail so you can review them and decide whether to call back.
- Avoid clicking links. Don't click links or call phone numbers in unexpected emails or text messages. If you want to follow up with a company or agency that appears to have contacted you, use an officially published phone number or website to be sure you know who you're contacting.
- Don't share your private information. Never furnish personal information (SSN or account number, for example) to prove your identity to someone who called or emailed you first. If they must verify, have them read the number to you—they should already know it—and confirm it that way.
- Protect your passwords. Keep account passwords to yourself, and avoid keeping them in a wallet or purse that could easily fall into the wrong hands. Consider using one of many free password manager programs to generate and store passwords more cryptic and secure than those you'll likely remember.
- Secure your accounts. Set up two-factor authentication on banking and credit card accounts and apps so that even if your passwords or account numbers are compromised, a thief will also need your smartphone to gain access to them.
The Bottom Line
Social Security scammers show no sign of retiring anytime soon, so you and seniors you care about must pay attention and remain aware of their ever-shifting schemes. The Social Security Administration provides a handy tip sheet and regular email updates through its Scam Alert webpage. Take advantage of these resources, and if you're concerned your personal data may have been compromised, consider free credit monitoring from Experian, which can alert you if applications for loans or credit are made in your name.