Beware of Scammers

Elderly recipients of Social Security benefits are a highly targeted group for con artists. Some scams are done over the phone, typically by callers impersonating Social Security Administration (SSA) employees who solicit personal information.

Other scams originate online, via email or online forms that request personal information, preying on the victim's sometimes-limited understanding of this technology. Thousands of Americans have fallen victim to these scams, losing a median of $1,500 each.

Key Takeaways

  • Phishing often aims to steal a senior's identity to open new credit cards or bank accounts, or even receive benefits in the victim's name.
  • Crooks impersonating Social Security employees call senior citizens to conduct fraudulent surveys over the phone.
  • A call to the local Social Security office of an elderly victim can help pinpoint suspicious information and identify con artists.

Common Scams

A common scam that targets Social Security recipients via email is known as phishing. More than 92,000 people reported losing $173 million to email scams in 2018, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

In Social Security phishing, victims most often receive an email from an individual impersonating an SSA employee. The victim is asked to fill out a form detailing sensitive information such as their name, Social Security number, license numbers, and other information that can be used to perpetrate fraud. The goal of this type of scam is often to steal the senior's identity so the impersonator can open a new credit card or bank accounts, and even receive benefits in the victim's name.

Another scam, according to the SSA, relies on an email designed to look like it came from Social Security. It provides information about the annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) and directs readers to a website created to look like Social Security’s site so they can "update their information."

In still another type of Social Security scam, people impersonating SSA employees call senior citizens to conduct fraudulent over-the-phone surveys. Like the email scam, these surveys solicit sensitive information, including names, Social Security numbers, and bank account information. They may also claim that due to a computer glitch, the victim's personal information is lost, and they will not be able to receive benefits until the new information is entered.

How Seniors Can Protect Themselves

The SSA claims the following:

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 notes that its personnel will never call to:

  • Demand an immediate payment
  • Demand that someone pays 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 scam calls and, for Social Security impersonations, contacting Social Security's Office of Inspector General. The OIG recently warned that some of these impersonation calls have "spoofed" SSA's national customer service phone number, displaying +1 (800) 772-1213 as the incoming number on caller ID.

Targets of Social Security scams can protect themselves by checking to see if any email correspondence that asks for highly personal information has a .gov Internet address. The SSA has released an official statement explaining that its representatives do not request personal information via email. Scam emails claiming to be from the SSA may appear authentic, but a phone call to the recipient's local Social Security office can help pinpoint suspicious information and identify con artists.

Social Security Administration employees will never ask for personal information over the phone or via email.

The Bottom Line

While Social Security scams have some unique features, they are similar to all phishing scams in that they can be avoided. Most official Social Security forms and emails come from .gov Internet addresses, according to the SSA. Other types of addresses are likely to be phishing scams. Any suspicious information-gathering activity from someone claiming to work for Social Security should be reported to the SSA, so a fraud report can be filed, protecting others in the future.