With some 65 million Americans receiving Social Security benefits, it isn't surprising that scam artists invoke the program's name in fraudulent phone calls, texts, emails, and letters. Their schemes typically involve impersonating the Social Security Administration (SSA) in order to obtain, and then misuse, Social Security numbers (SSNs) and other personal information. Here’s a rundown, by mode of delivery, of common Social Security scams, along with the steps to take to avoid and report them.
- Scammers use phone calls, emails, text messages, and letters to impersonate Social Security personnel and trick people into giving up personal information.
- Common tactics include asking for your Social Security number and threatening to cut off Social Security benefits if personal information isn't provided.
- Scams should be reported to your local authorities, the SSA Office of the Inspector General, or the Federal Trade Commission.
1. Fraudulent Threatening Phone Calls
Bogus phone calls related to Social Security benefits are among the top scams. The calls often involve people—or robotic voices—pretending to be from the Social Security Administration who try to get your Social Security number or demand money, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The agency warns that callers sometimes use “spoofing” techniques to make the genuine Social Security hotline number (1-800-772-1213) appear on the recipient’s caller ID screen. The caller may also identify themselves using the name of an actual SSA official.
The SSA says the language used in these calls has become “increasingly threatening” in recent years. The caller typically states that due to improper or illegal activity with the person’s Social Security number or account, they will be arrested or face other legal action unless they call a particular phone number to address the issue.
The tone of such calls is itself an indicator that they are fraudulent. The SSA does contact some recipients by phone, but they’re almost always people who have current business with the agency. And an SSA employee will “never threaten you for information; they will not state that you face potential arrest or other legal action if you fail to provide information,” the agency says. “In [such] cases the call is fraudulent.”
In a relatively new spin on this scam, criminals are now sending threatening text messages purporting to be from Social Security. But, according to the Office of the Inspector General at SSA, "Social Security will never send a text asking for a return call to an unknown number. Social Security will only send text messages if you have opted in to receive texts from the agency and only in limited situations."
Social Security Administration employees will never ask for personal information, such as your Social Security number or date of birth, over the phone or via email.
2. Fraudulent Friendly Service Phone Calls
Another type of scam call attempts to sell to the recipient services the SSA readily provides at no charge. The caller might, for example, offer to provide a new Social Security card, enroll a new family member in the program, or provide a record of Social Security contributions to date, along with the expected future income they will yield.
3. Fake Emails and Phishing
Victims can also be reeled in by “phishing” emails that appear to be messages from the SSA. The emails may have attachments that resemble actual letters from the SSA, complete with the agency's seal and similar font styles. The email messages may also direct readers to a fake web page designed to look like the real SSA website.
The motive is to obtain personal information from you, which you should never provide. The same clues of fraudulent intent as with the phone calls apply here. The SSA says that legitimate emails from the agency never seek personal information and do not adopt an alarmist or threatening tone.
4. Social Security Fraud by Mail
While the rise of scams perpetrated electronically, and thus cheaply, has reduced the volume of Social Security fraud by mail, the practice has not entirely vanished. One such scheme is a direct mail scam that primarily targets older people.
A letter, appearing to be from an SSA official and on SSA letterhead, comes in the mail and asks the recipient to call a toll-free number to activate an increase in benefits, such as a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA). Again, this is a red flag. COLA increases are automatic and require no action to initiate. In the event the SSA does send you a letter—for example, when your benefits increase—it will never ask you for any personal information.
How to Protect Yourself From Social Security Fraud
As with all scams, the best way to avoid becoming a victim is to stay vigilant. If you receive a phone call asking for your Social Security number or other personal information, it’s best to hang up immediately. You may also want to consider adding the caller’s phone number to a blocked-call list to help prevent repeated nuisance calls.
Be aware, however, that spoofing allows scammers to use (or at least display to you) a succession of misleading numbers. So, unfortunately, blocking the first number that called you doesn't stop further calls from different phone numbers.
Be sure that your information, including your Social Security card, is stored securely. Shred any documents with sensitive information rather than just putting them in the trash. If you access Social Security information online, keep your password to yourself and change it regularly to minimize the likelihood of your account being hacked.
It's also worth checking your credit reports on a regular basis to make sure no one has compromised your financial information. A paid credit monitoring service might also be helpful. Finally, try to keep up to date with the latest Social Security scams. The SSA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) monitors these and issues warnings as new schemes arise.
How to Report a Social Security Scam
If you suspect you’ve been the victim of a scam or simply want to report calls or correspondence that you find suspicious, you have several options. You can call the OIG hotline (1-800-269-0271) or submit a fraud report on the OIG's website using the online SSA Scam Reporting Form.
You can also report the scam on the FTC’s complaint website. Make sure you document anything you can to add to your report, such as a telephone number or website, the name the caller gave, the time and date of the call or email, what information you were asked for, and anything else that might help identify the fraudster.
What Social Security Scams are Common?
Phone, email and text scams are the most common and fraudulent letters are still a problem. Scammers use these methods to obtain your personal information, so that it can be used in identity theft.
How Can I Spot a Social Security Scam?
The Social Security Administration will never ask for your personal information, such as your Social Security number, date of birth or bank account details , via email, text or over the phone. SSA employees will never threaten you with arrest or other legal actions if you don’t provide personal information.
What Is Phishing?
Phishing is a common type of identity theft in which unknowing victims give personal information, such as a Social Security number or bank account information, to a scammer. Phishing can be carried out through email, text or a fraudulent website appearing to represent a legitimate organization.