Since virtually all seniors receive Social Security benefits, it's probably unsurprising that a lot of scam artists raise the program in fraudulent phone calls, e-mails, and letters. The schemes typically involve criminals impersonating the Social Security Agency in order to obtain, and then misuse, Social Security Numbers (SSNs) and other personal information.
Here's a rundown, by mode of delivery, of some common Social Security scams, along with the steps to take to avoid them and to report any suspected schemes you encounter.
- Scammers use phone calls and e-mail messages to impersonate Social Security personnel and trick people into giving up money and personal information.
- Common tactics include threatening the suspension of 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.
Fraudulent Phone Calls
In 2019, the National Council of Aging listed scam calls related to Social Security benefits as among the three frauds targeting seniors that raise the greatest concern. Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) describes the number of such calls and their financial impact as "growing exponentially."
The calls often involve people pretending to be from the Social Security Administration (SSA) trying to get your Social Security number or your money, according to the FTC. The agency warns that callers sometimes using so-called spoofing techniques to make the actual Social Security hotline number (1-800-772-1213) appear on the recipient’s phone or caller ID screen. The caller may also identify themselves by the name of an actual SSA official, such as the agency's inspector general, Gale Ennis.
The SSA describes the language used in these calls in recent years as "increasingly threatening." 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 if they fail to call a provided phone number to address the issue.
The tone of such calls is alone an indicator 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 states. "In [such] cases, the call is fraudulent."
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, enrol 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.
The median loss reported by the FTC of those victimized by an SSA phone call scam in 2018 was $1,484.
If you receive any 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. Consequently, blocking the first number used no longer precludes receiving further calls from different identifying phone numbers.
Fake E-mail Headers and Phishing
Seniors may also be reeled in by so-called phishing e-mails designed to emulate messages from the SSA. The e-mails typically resemble actual agency communication, including duplicate mastheads and font styles. The messages may also direct readers to a fake page designed to look like one from the SSA website.
The efforts invariably seek to obtain personal information from you, which you should of course never provide. The same clues of fraudulent intent as with the phone calls apply here. Both the SSA and the Office of the Inspector General say that legitimate e-mails from the agency never seek personal information and do not adopt an alarmist or threatening tone.
Social Security Fraud by Mail
While the rise of scams perpetrated electronically, and thus cheaply, has reduced Social Security fraud by mail, the practice has not entirely vanished. One such scheme is a direct mail scam that primarily targets senior citizens. A letter comes in the mail offering an extra security check, along with a form asking for personal information and a filing fee.
In the letter, 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, since the Social Security Administration will never ask for a full Social Security number, since it already knows it.
In the event the administration does send you a letter—say, for instance, when your benefits increase—it will never ask you for money or any other personal information.
How to Protect Yourself
As with all scams, the most important way to avoid becoming a victim is to stay vigilant. In addition to the steps mentioned above, be sure that your information, including your Social Security card, is stored securely. Be sure to shred any documents with sensitive information rather than putting them in the trash. If you access Social Security information online, keep your password to yourself and change it often to minimize the likelihood of your account being hacked. If you are suspicious, don't follow through with any requests.
Check your credit reports on a regular basis to make sure no one has compromised your financial information.
Finally, keep up to date with current Social Security scams. The SSA's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) monitors these and issues warnings as new schemes arise. Sign up to receive the OIG press releases via e-mail.
The number of reports received about Social Security phone scams by the FTC in 2018
How to Report a Scam
If you suspect you've been the victim of a scam, or simply want to report Social Security calls or correspondence that you find suspicious, you have several options. You can call your local authorities or the OIG hotline at 800-269-0271 or fill out a public fraud reporting form at the Social Security website's fraud page. 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 of the caller, the time and date of the call or e-mail, what information was requested, and anything else that may identify the person who made the call.