The Social Security system represents a perfect opportunity for scammers. As more Social Security agency business is conducted online and over the phone, scammers can capitalize on these electronic methods to steal beneficiaries’ hard-earned money. And with over 66 million Social Security beneficiaries, scammers have unfortunately begun to focus on beneficiaries as lucrative targets.
This article will discuss common Social Security scams and how to spot them. With the proper background and education, you can easily spot a Social Security scam and learn how to avoid them.
What Do Social Security Scams Mean?
Social Security scams occur when criminals steal money from Social Security recipients, often by pretending to be operating under the authority of government officials. These thieves have become extremely sophisticated over the years and have honed their methods to mirror official SSA communications. They use correspondence that appears official, and even use threats via text, email, and phone. Scammers have been known to use telephone numbers connected to the Social Security Administration (SSA) and the real names of Social Security employees. Scammers also use false incentives, such as fake offers to increase Social Security benefits for a cost of living adjustment, or threats to suspend benefits without prepayment.
Common Types of Social Security Scams
Social Security scammers use several different types of scams to get their hands on people’s Social Security benefits.
Phone call scams
Social Security phone scams occur when scammers call pretending to be a Social Security employee. They often employ a threatening tone or robotic voice. You can spot these scams if the caller threatens to suspend your SSN (the SSA will never suspend a Social Security number) or demand money. In many cases, the caller states that illegal activity has been detected on the Social Security account, threatening legal action or arrest if action is not taken. The caller may urge you to take immediate action to avoid further penalties, using a common tactic employed by scammers and grifters to create a false sense of urgency.
Scammers may spoof local numbers from Social Security offices or police departments to appear official, so always remain skeptical of any unknown caller and hang up if you feel unsure about the identity of the person on the other end of the line. You may also contact Social Security through their official numbers to see if the agency is trying to reach you.
Email phishing scams
These are fraudulent correspondence designed to look like official communications from the Social Security Administration. The emails often bear the hallmarks of an official communication, utilizing SSA logos and email usernames that appear to belong to real employees. The email will often contain attachments using similar fonts and logos as regular SSA communications.
As with telephone scams, the motive of the scammer in email phishing scams is to obtain personal information such as Social Security numbers or bank account information. Social Security never uses threatening messages in their communications, and would never ask you to send money in the form of cryptocurrency, or to make a wire transfer or mail cash. Scammers often request these forms of payment because they are difficult to impossible to trace.
This tactic is often used in email phishing scams and telephone calls. Scammers pretend to be Social Security employees to obtain beneficiaries’ sensitive personal information. In another common impersonation scam, scammers send threatening or official-looking text messages to beneficiaries.
If you are unsure whether a communication is actually from Social Security, remain calm and ignore the message. Seek advice from a trusted source, or contact the Social Security Administration directly. Remember that Social Security never asks for personal identifying information or money via text message communications.
Social Security overpayments were recently covered by 60 Minutes. The news segment covered the real-life issue of overpayment notices, which occur when Social Security mistakenly pays too much in benefits. (For more information on this topic, read our blog on what to do if you receive a legitimate overpayment notice from the SSA).
Scammers, sensing a potentially advantageous inroad, will erroneously claim that you were improperly overpaid by the Social Security Administration, and demand a repayment for the full amount of the overpayment. As with the email phishing scam and impersonation scam, contact Social Security if you receive a communication regarding an overpayment to find out if it’s legitimate. Note that the SSA collects legitimate overpayments via pay.gov or by reducing Social Security benefits until the overpayment is collected. Social Security will never ask you to repay an overpayment via gift cards, cash, cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin, or online payment systems such as Venmo or Zelle.
Identity theft occurs when scammers steal personal information such as Social Security numbers to commit identity fraud. They may open new credit card accounts, take out loans, or file fraudulent tax returns in the victim’s name. This can seriously damage your credit. If you suspect that your SSN has been stolen by a scammer, report it at identitytheft.gov.
The Impact of Social Security Scams
Social Security scams can affect individuals in a number of ways, including the following:
Social Security scams often involve identity theft, where fraudsters steal personal information to impersonate the victims. They can use this stolen identity to apply for credit, take out loans, commit crimes, or deceive others, causing financial and reputational damage to the victim.
Financial loss resulting from a Social Security scam is especially unfortunate for someone who relies on a fixed Social Security benefit and to those who are unable to work due to a disability. Those who rely on Social Security for their primary source of income may be particularly vulnerable to threats associated with the Social Security system, as they may give in to the scammers’ demands out of fear that their benefits might be withheld if they don’t comply with the scammers. Scammers know all this and may in fact prey on the financial precarity of their targets.
Scams cause severe emotional distress to victims. Often, victims of a scam feel ashamed that they were deceived, and they avoid telling family members or friends about their predicament. If you are the victim of a financial crime, it’s important to know that you are not alone. Many people fall victim to scams through no fault of their own, especially as scammers become increasingly persistent and sophisticated.
Increase in cybercrime
Social Security scams contribute to the overall increase in cybercrime. These scams add to the burden on law enforcement and cybersecurity professionals trying to combat online fraud and protect consumers. Cybercrimes are increasing in the United States, and account for billions in dollars in losses to the public.
How to Protect Yourself from SSA Scams
Avoid the impacts of Social Security scams by following these tips:
Understand how the SSA communicates
The Social Security Administration will call you from recognized public telephone numbers. Also, keep in mind that most email communications from the SSA will come from email addresses containing “.gov” usernames. The links and logos in the email will always direct you to the official Social Security website, never a “.com” or “.org” web address. Here are examples of fraudulent Social Security web addresses:
Do not respond to emails with any personal information. Social Security will not request your date of birth, Social Security number, or any other personal identifying information via email. If you are unsure about the legitimacy of a phone call, email, or mailer, call Social Security directly to verify.
Never share personal details over the phone
Scammers often pose as SSA representatives and ask for personal information. Never share your Social Security number, banking details, or other personal information over the phone. Social Security will never threaten you or promise additional benefits in exchange for information. If you feel you have received a fraudulent scam phone call, hang up and call the fraud hotline at 1-800-269-0271.
Be skeptical of threatening calls
The SSA will never threaten you with arrest or legal action if you do not provide personal information or pay a fine. Any calls of this nature are likely scams. Here are some examples of telephone scams that Social Security has alerted the public to in the past: https://www.ssa.gov/news/materials/pdfs/2019PhoneScamAlertScripts.pdf.
If there is an issue with your Social Security account, you will receive correspondence in the mail. The SSA will never:
- Threaten you with arrest of legal action
- Suspend your Social Security number
- Demand immediate payment from you
- Require payment by cash, gift card, prepaid debit card, internet currency, or wire transfer
- Ask for gift card numbers over the phone or that you wire or mail cash
- Ask for personal details or banking information to give you a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA)
Verify the caller’s identity
If you receive a suspicious call, hang up and call the SSA directly to verify the caller’s identity. The official SSA number is 1-800-772-1213. If you are unsure, the SSA advises that you do the following:
- Remain calm.
- Hang up or ignore the message.
- Protect your money. Do not initiate any type of transfers or payments.
- Protect your personal information. Do not give the caller any information about yourself.
- Tell your family, friends, and community that you received a scam call.
- Report the fraudulent call to the Office of the Inspector General.
Install security software
Protect your computer and mobile devices by installing reputable security software. You should also ensure that your bank accounts and email address are password-protected and have two-factor authentication (2FA) enabled. If 2FA is enabled, never give the one-time PIN or code to anyone over the phone or via email.
Regularly review your Social Security records
Create your Social Security account, or “mySSA Account,” to check your certified Social Security earnings record. Through your mySSA account, you can check your work history with the years of income the SSA has posted to your record under your SSN. If someone is using your Social Security number, you may be able to catch this scam by regularly checking your account.
Educate yourself on SSA scams
Stay updated on the latest types of SSA scams. Social Security often posts updated information about scams, as scammers become increasingly sophisticated and change tactics with public knowledge of the scam.
You will not lose your Social Security number, but if you lose your Social Security card, you should apply for a new one online at the Social Security website.
No. Your Social Security number cannot be changed or deactivated.
No. The SSA does not block, reassign, or change your SSN once it is assigned.
According to Social Security, if you suspect that someone is using your SSN, you should take the following steps:
- Review the earnings posted to your record on your Social Security Statement and report any inconsistencies to them.
- Contact the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) at 1-800-908-4490 or visit them online, if you believe someone is using your SSN to work, get your tax refund, or other abuses involving taxes.
- Order free credit reports annually from the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion). Make a single request for all three credit bureau reports at Annual Credit Report Request Form (Disclaimer) or by calling 1-877-322-8228.
- File a report with your local police or the police in the community where the identity theft took place.
- Report identity theft at the Federal Trade Commission’s Identity Theft webpage.