Move over, IRS. Criminals now prefer the Social Security Administration as their cover agency when they try to swindle Americans over the phone.
The IRS has long been a popular choice for telephone scammers, who call pretending to be federal tax representatives to extract money, personal information, or both, from consumers.
But federal authorities say they have seen fraudulent calls from Social Security Administration impostors “skyrocket” over the past year, overtaking the fake IRS calls.
“In the shady world of government impostors,” the Federal Trade Commission said in a report in April, “the SSA scam may be the new IRS scam.”
The IRS scheme is still around. The IRS lists impostor calls as one of its “dirty dozen” fraud risks. Kati Daffan, assistant director of the FTC’s division of marketing practices, said it was not clear why Social Security-based calls were increasing. It may be that criminals are adapting their approach as the public becomes more aware of the fake income-tax calls. “Scam artists are always changing to the next big thing,” Daffan said.
People filed over 76,000 reports about Social Security impostors in the 12 months ending in March, with reported losses of $19 million, according to the FTC, which investigates consumer fraud. Of that total, about 36,000 reports and $6.7 million in reported losses came this past February and March.
By comparison, the agency said, consumers reported $17 million in losses to the IRS scam at its peak, during the 12 months that ended in September 2016. The data comes from the FTC’s Consumer Sentinel Network database, a pool of millions of consumer complaints.
A typical loss for those who reveal their loss to the FTC is about $1,500, the agency said.
In some cases, as with the IRS calls, the criminals are quite aggressive and try to scare their targets into action. In one common tactic, the fake callers tell the potential victim that his or her Social Security number has been “suspended” because of suspicious activity or because it has been involved in a crime. The callers may ask their victims to confirm their Social Security numbers. They even say the victims must withdraw cash from their bank accounts and that the accounts will be frozen if the victims don’t act quickly.
Some people are scared enough that they follow the caller’s orders to withdraw money and put it on a gift card, then give the card’s number to the criminals. Less commonly, the FTC said, people have followed instructions to withdraw cash and convert it into a digital currency, by depositing it into a bitcoin ATM, where it becomes accessible to the thieves.
Here are some questions and answers about fraudulent calls:
Q: How can I tell if a call from a federal agency is legitimate?
A: In general, if you get an unsolicited phone call asking for detailed financial or personal information, be suspicious and don’t share any information. “The SSA will not contact you out of the blue,” the FTC said.
Don’t automatically trust the phone number on your caller ID screen. Criminals may use “spoofing” technology to make the call appear to be from an actual government number.
“We cannot trust the caller ID any longer,” Daffan said of the FTC.
Just last month, Gail S. Ennis, inspector general of Social Security, warned of fake calls that appeared on caller ID to be from the office’s fraud hotline (800-269-0271). While employees of both the inspector general’s office and Social Security may contact people “for official purposes,” and may request that citizens confirm personal information over the phone, the calls will not appear on caller ID as the fraud hotline number, the advisory said, and federal employees will never threaten people for information.
“This is a scam; OIG employees do not place outgoing calls from the fraud hotline 800 number,” the advisory said.
The best thing to do is hang up, said Amy Nofziger, director of fraud victim support at AARP Fraud Watch Network, which helps consumers who are worried about such calls.
If you’re unsure whether the call was a fake, call the agency directly — using a phone number you’ve checked independently, not one given to you by the caller. The Social Security Administration’s main number is 800-772-1213.
You should also report fraudulent calls. You can report them to the inspector general by calling the hotline number or online. You also can report it to the FTC on a complaint website dedicated to Social Security scams.
Q: What if I revealed my Social Security number to a caller?
A: Visit IdentityTheft.gov, which uses a question-and-answer format to help you protect yourself from identity theft. Steps include putting a freeze on your credit reports to prevent someone from opening new bank accounts or credit cards with your information. At a minimum, you should put a fraud alert on your credit reports, and check them regularly to spot any suspicious activity.
Q: How should I advise an older relative who receives fraudulent calls?
A: People of all ages are receiving Social Security scam calls, the FTC said.
But Patricia Boyle, a neuropsychologist and an associate professor at the Rush Alzheimer’s disease Center in Chicago, said older adults were particularly attractive targets for fraud schemes, in part because they often have access to accumulated wealth.
Older adults also exhibit behaviors that may put them at risk for phone fraud, she said. In a recent study of 935 older adults that she co-wrote, more than three-fourths of the participants reported answering the telephone whenever it rang, even if the call was from an unfamiliar number. Many also said they listened to telemarketing calls and struggled with ending unsolicited calls.
The study suggested that falling prey to a telephone scam, even in people who appear to be functioning normally, may be an early warning sign of later cognitive problems or Alzheimer’s, Boyle said. That doesn’t mean that everyone who is duped will develop dementia. But it may be wise, she said, to monitor the person’s behavior for potential problems, or seek professional screening.
AARP Fraud Watch offers a free helpline for people worried about phone scams (877-908-3360) as well as online tips, and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority offers resources for helping protect older people from financial exploitation.