Americans who receive Social Security retirement benefits are favorite targets of con artists. The goal of most Social Security scammers is to obtain personal information about the victim that can be used in identity theft.
Some scams are committed over the phone, typically by callers who impersonate Social Security Administration (SSA) employees and try to solicit personal information. Other scams originate via email or text message, that request personal information. Here's how to recognize a scam and avoid becoming a victim.
- Social Security recipients collectively lose millions to scam artists each year.
- Scams may involve phone calls, emails, text messages, or regular letters purporting to be from the Social Security Administration (SSA).
- The goal of most Social Security scams is to obtain personal information about the victim that can be used in identity theft.
Common Social Security Scams
The goal of Social Security scams is often to steal the victim's identity so the impersonator can open a new credit card or bank account, or even receive benefits in the victim's name. But in other instances, the caller will demand money from the victim. For example, they will threaten to cut off your Social Security benefits if you don't pay a bogus penalty.
Social Security scam artists use every medium at their disposal to go after older adults —phone calls, emails, texts, and regular mail.
Telephone scams are the top fraud reported to the SSA and they're big business. In 2020, there were more 718,000 Social Security-related telephone scams reported and a total of $44.8 million lost, according to the SSA.
In a typical scam call, the caller (either a real person or an automated robocaller) claims to be from the Social Security Administration. The call may be intimidating—for example, threatening to cut off the recipient's benefits unless they provide information or send money—or seemingly benign.
In one variation, scammers pose as federal agents and other law enforcement and claim your Social Security number is linked to a crime. Some may threaten to arrest you if you do not follow their instructions, such as reconfirming your name, Social Security number, and bank account information. For people who might wonder whether the SSA doesn't already have all that information, the caller may say that it was lost due to a computer glitch and the victim's benefits will be suspended until the new information is entered.
Emails that target Social Security recipients often use a technique known as phishing. In Social Security phishing, victims typically receive an email from someone impersonating an SSA employee. For example, the target is asked to fill out a form requiring personal information such as their name, Social Security number, driver's license number, and other information that can be used to perpetrate fraud.
Email scams, like the phone scams, also involve fraudsters posing as federal agents.
Social Security Administration employees will never ask for personal information over the phone or via email.
Text Message and Letter Scams
Though phone and email scams may be the criminal element's most popular techniques these days, phony letters claiming to be from the SSA remain a problem, and text-message scams are becoming increasingly common. One text scam warns about a Social Security number problem and asks the recipient to call a number to resolve it or the agency will take legal action.
There was a sharp increase in 2020 in the number of fraud reports overall at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) stating that scammers contacted them via text message. Many of these texts were related to the COVID-19 pandemic and lured people to click on harmful links with promises of stimulus relief, economic aid, or loans for small businesses.
How to Protect Yourself From Social Security Scams
Though Social Security recipients need to remain vigilant to avoid being scammed, there are several relatively obvious signs to watch out for. For example, the SSA notes that: "Social Security employees do occasionally contact people—generally those who have ongoing business with the agency—by telephone for business purposes. However, Social Security employees will never threaten a person or promise a Social Security benefit approval (or increase) in exchange for information or money. In those cases, the call is fraudulent and people should just hang up."
The SSA also says that its personnel will never call to:
- Demand an immediate payment
- Demand that someone pay a debt without being able to appeal
- Require a specific means of payment, such as a prepaid debit card
- Ask for personal information or credit or debit card numbers over the phone
- Promise a Social Security benefit in exchange for information or money
The SSA recommends hanging up immediately on what appear to be scam calls and reporting incidents to Social Security's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) using the online SSA Scam Reporting Form. The OIG has warned that some of these impersonation calls have "spoofed" the SSA's national fraud hotline phone number, displaying +1-800-269-0271 as the incoming number on caller ID.
Targets of Social Security scams can also protect themselves by checking to see if any email correspondence has a .gov internet address. Scam emails claiming to be from the SSA may appear authentic, but the SSA says its representatives do not request personal information via email.
The average amount lost in 2020 by those who reported Social Security telephone scams.
The Bottom Line
Social Security scams are widespread but can be relatively easy to spot if you know what to look for. If you are contacted by anyone purporting to be a Social Security representative—whether by phone, email, text, or letter—and have any doubts about their authenticity, contact the SSA directly yourself to check them out.
What Is the Most Common Social Security Scam?
Phone scams are the most common. In 2020 alone, Americans lost a total of $44.8 million in phone-related Social Security scams.
How Can I Report a Social Security Scam?
To report a scam, call the SSA's national fraud hotline phone number: 1-800-269-0271. You can also report fraud by filling out the online SSA Scam Reporting Form.
What Is Phishing?
Phishing is a type of identity theft in which the victim unknowingly gives personal data, such as a Social Security number or bank account information, to a fraudster. This method of cybercrime can be carried out through email, text or the creation of a fraudulent website appearing to represent a legitimate organization.