Americans who receive Social Security retirement benefits are favorite targets of con artists. 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 online, via email or online forms that request personal information. Thousands of Americans have fallen victim to these scams, losing a median of $1,500 each.

Key Takeaways

  • Social Security recipients are among the favorite targets of scam artists.
  • Scams may involve phone calls, emails, text messages, or regular letters purporting to be from the Social Security Administration.
  • 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

Social Security scam artists use every medium at their disposal to go after their prey—emails, phone calls, texts, and regular mail.

Email scams

More than 92,000 people reported losing $226 million to email scams of all kinds in 2019, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Emails that target Social Security recipients often use the technique known as phishing.

In Social Security phishing, victims typically receive an email from an individual impersonating an SSA employee. The victim is asked to fill out a form requiring personal 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 victim's identity so the impersonator can open new credit card or bank accounts, or even receive benefits in the victim's name.

Another email scam purports to provide information about the SSA's annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) and directs recipients to a website created to look like the real Social Security site, where they can "update" their information.

Phone scams

Scams conducted by telephone are an even bigger business than email scams. The FTC reported more than 820,000 phone scams of all kinds in 2019, costing Americans more than $490 million. Many of those calls target Social Security recipients.

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, bogus SSA employees claim to be conducting over-the-phone surveys. Like the email scam, these surveys solicit sensitive information, including names, Social Security numbers, 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.

Letter and text-message scams

Though email and phone scams may be the criminal element's most popular these days, phony letters claiming to be from the SSA remain a problem, and text-message scams are becoming increasingly common.

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.

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

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 email, phone, text, or letter—and have any doubts about their authenticity, contact the SSA directly yourself to check them out.