The 4 Most Common Social Security Scams and How to Avoid Them

Easy ways to spot a fraudulent phone call, text, email, or letter

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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 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.

Key Takeaways

  • Scammers use phone calls and email messages to impersonate Social Security personnel and trick people into giving up personal information.
  • Common tactics include threatening to cut off Social Security benefits or charging for services the Social Security Administration provides for free.
  • 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

When the National Council on Aging announced its "Scams to Watch Out For" in 2019, bogus phone calls related to Social Security benefits topped the list. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says the number of such calls and their financial impact is “growing exponentially.”

The calls often involve people—or robotic voices—pretending to be from the Social Security Administration (SSA) who try to get your Social Security number or demand money, according to the 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."

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 Email Headers 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. 

The Social Security Administration says it will never use intimidating or threatening language in any form of communication.

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 comes in the mail offering an extra check, along with a form asking for personal information and a filing fee. In it, the scammer asks the recipient for a Social Security number, money, and/or bank account information to help with the application.

Again, this is a red flag. The Social Security Administration will never ask for your full Social Security number, because it already knows it. In the event the SSA does send you a letter—for example, when your benefits increase—it will never ask you for money or any other personal information.

The Social Security Administration will never ask you for your full Social Security number. It already knows it.

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 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 your local authorities or the OIG hotline (1-800-269-0271) or submit a fraud report on the OIG's website.

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 scamster.

Article Sources

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  1. Social Security Administration. "Fact Sheet." Accessed Dec. 24, 2020.

  2. National Council on Aging. "Scams to Watch Out for in 2019." Accessed Dec. 24, 2020.

  3. Federal Trade Commission. "This is What a Social Security Scam Sounds Like." Accessed Dec. 24, 2020.

  4. Federal Trade Commission. "Getting Calls From the SSA?" Accessed Dec. 24, 2020.

  5. Social Security Administration. "IG Warns Public About Fraudulent Phone Calls Threatening Arrest or Legal Action." Accessed Dec. 24, 2020.

  6. Social Security Administration. "Inspector General Warns Public About Widespread Social Security Scam Texts." Accessed Dec. 24, 2020.

  7. Social Security Administration. "Inspector General Warns Public About New Twist to Social Security Phone Scams." Accessed Dec. 24, 2020.

  8. Social Security Administration. "Social Security: Fraud Prevention and Reporting." Accessed Dec. 24, 2020.