According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), Americans have lost more than $50 million over the last two years to Social Security scams—and that’s just from telephone scams.
Unfortunately, the telephone isn’t the only method used. Between October 1, 2018 and September 30, 2019, more than 450,000 Americans reported being contacted by Social Security scammers by phone, email, or even physical mail.
To help you avoid becoming a victim, consider this your guide to what tactics are commonly used, what to look for if you’re being targeted, and what to do to avoid the growing number of Social Security scams.
Common Social Security Scam Tactics: What to be Aware of
Fraudsters often use three different avenues to gain your Social Security information: telephone, email, and direct mail.
Not all scams take place online. Because Social Security benefits are by and large received by the elderly, fraudsters often target their victims using more traditional methods like the telephone.
Common phone scams you may encounter include:
- Conducting a seemingly innocuous phone survey designed to gather your personal information. Some questions are intended to gather answers to frequently used security questions, which could allow someone to access your account without directly acquiring personal information such as your Social Security number (SSN).
- Claiming your Social Security information has been lost and your benefits will be held until it has been re-entered.
- Warning you that your SSN has been suspended in connection to criminal activity.
- Selling existing Social Security services that are free. This might include enrolling another member of the family, sharing records of your Social Security contributions, or providing an estimate of income you might expect down the road.
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Using an email scam known as phishing, a fraudster will attempt to gain your personal information by pretending to be a reputable company, organization, or institution. Specific to Social Security, scammers will send an email that seems to be from the SSA, in some cases impersonating an actual agency official.
Employing a duplicate SSA email template, similar font styles, and official-sounding language, Social Security “phishers” may ask you to fill out a form related to your benefits or to visit a website to update your annual cost-of-living adjustment—all to capture sensitive information and steal your identity.
Yes, scams still occur through the postal service (and other mail carriers). One example is a letter that offers you an extra Social Security check (or other increases in benefits) provided you complete the enclosed form and include the necessary “filing fee.”
Signs of a Scam: What to Look for
How can you tell if you’re being scammed? Fraud techniques have grown more and more sophisticated and can sometimes be a challenge to identify. While you can never predict what a scammer may or may not do, here are a few signs to help you spot the difference between a Social Security scam and valid outreach from the Social Security Administration.
|A Social Security scammer…||The Social Security Administration…|
|Requests your personal information.||Already has your SSN!|
|Includes attachments with personal information.||Never emails documents that contain personally identifiable details.|
|Demands immediate payments using specific methods such as mailing cash, wire transfers, internet currency, retail gift cards, or prepaid debit cards.||Sends a letter with instructions and payment options—and multiple notices before it becomes urgent.|
|Offers benefits in exchange for payment or personal information.||Does not offer “quid pro quo” assistance.|
|Threatens to suspend your SSN, take legal action against you, or other sudden consequences using intimidating language.||Won’t ever block or suspend your SSN, or threaten your arrest over unpaid debts, fines or fees.|
|Can contain typos and poor grammar.||Will be well-written—though this alone doesn’t mean it’s a legitimate request.|
|Calls or texts you without solicitation.||Will call regarding an ongoing matter or after having already contacted you, except in rare instances.|
|Pressures you to be secretive about your purported Social Security matter, which may include inventing a story to tell family, friends, and your financial institution.||Has nothing to hide and will be transparent in addressing any issues with your account.|
Protect Yourself: What to Do
Now that you’re aware of common scam tactics and you can recognize some telltale signs of a scam, what can you do to protect yourself? Here are a few actions you can take to avoid a potential Social Security scam.
- Never provide your personal information to someone who contacts you without solicitation—even if it’s “just” the last four digits of your SSN.
- Contact the SSA directly through official channels listed on the government agency’s website, such as their 1-800-772-1213 customer service number.This is good practice even if it seems you are receiving a call from the official SSA number—fraudsters use a particularly devious technique known as spoofing, which allows them to modify how the caller ID appears on your phone.Even if the incoming call matches the correct SSA telephone number, you still want to hang up and dial the number yourself to make sure you’re speaking with the real SSA.
- Strengthen the security on your account with additional blocks. The eServices and Direct Deposit Fraud Prevention blocks prevent any online changes to your personal or direct deposit information; you must go in person to a local field office to update your account, including to remove the blocks. Remember: What’s inconvenient for you is an obstacle for scammers.
- Check your credit report regularly to monitor any fraudulent activity.
- Wait before you click. Scammers will often try to trick you by linking to URLs that are very similar to government sites (i.e. https://www.socialsecurity.gov.gmx.de/), a technique known as typosquatting. The SSA will always link to a “.gov/” domain in which the “.gov” is immediately followed by a forward slash, with nothing in between (i.e. https://www.ssa.gov/myaccount/). However, it’s not as simple as hovering over a link with your mouse to check the web address. Fraudsters are also known to con people into clicking on a bad link by masking it with a legitimate-seeming URL when they hover over it.
- Double check the sender’s email address. Outside of some marketing firms promoting select Social Security services, legitimate SSA emails will come from [email protected], [email protected], or [email protected].
- Report any scams or suspicious activity. By reporting Social Security scams, you help put a stop to scam artists and prevent others from becoming victims. You can report any suspected scams through the online SSA Scam Reporting Form from the Office of the Attorney General.
The bottom line to protecting yourself? Don’t respond. If you’re at all suspicious, hang up the phone, delete the email, don’t open any links, and don’t put anything in the mail—especially not money. Any answers you give or actions you take can give fraudsters something to use to access your information—even just enough encouragement to keep targeting you.
In the end, the best defense against scams…is you. By being aware, on the lookout, and proactively protecting yourself, you’ll be better prepared to avoid Social Security scams that you may encounter.
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