Online Social Security Scams impact a growing number of Americans, especially the elderly, as the scams often threaten to reduce or eliminate benefits if the recipient fails to turn over information to the scammer. Once compromised, several steps may be required to protect benefits and prevent or reverse identity theft, including the issuance of a replacement Social Security card. Victims of these scams rarely receive compensation covering the time and dollars lost to the criminal.
Social Security fraud is big business involving organizations and individuals from around the globe. The IRS estimates that fraudsters receive billions of dollars per year using stolen or fake Social Security Numbers. Obtaining someone’s Social Security number will allow the thief to open multiple accounts in that person’s name, impacting the victim’s credit rating. Correcting fraud caused by the criminal may cost the victim significant time and money to reverse the theft, and possibly resulting in the victim owing charges made by the scammer. Trips to the Social Security office to change a Social Security number or obtain a replacement Social Security card costs the victims even more time. If the Social Security number needs to be changed, personal information at a vast array of places — banks, credit card companies, physician’s offices, insurers, and other firms with whom people regularly perform business — will have to be changed, usually by interacting with each such firm.
Several different types of scams exist. Some of the more common scams are listed here:
- Email scams. Victims receive an email detailing problems with their information that could cause a delay in or suspension of benefits. Often the emails request that the users click links where they will receive prompts to enter personal information, including their Social Security number, address, and phone number. Commonly known as “phishing,” these scams obtain personal information from millions of people per year.
- Phone Scams. Victims receive a phone call threatening to terminate benefits if certain information, including their Social Security numbers, is not provided to the caller. The callers try to sound intimidating in an attempt to bully and scare the victim into giving the information. The callers resist attempts to hang up in a further effort to bully the target.
- Mail Scams. Although these scams are decreasing as the criminals prefer online theft, they have not vanished. These usually take the form of providing or offering to provide additional benefits. The mailing often requests personal information and a filing fee, neither of which would be needed by Social Security.
- Text Scams. Text messaging fraud is on the rise. In these cases, the fraudsters send a text message that will either advise the recipient to call a number to correct problems with benefits or to click from the text message to a website where they will need to enter personal information, including their Social Security number. These operate on the same premise as the email scams.
Several characteristics and mistakes identify scammers. They include:
- Extended email addresses or email addresses that do not match the format of government email addresses. A Social Security email would come from a “.gov” address. Anything other than that, or email addresses containing long strings of numbers and letters is likely fake. Remember, simply because the email comes from a “.gov” address does not mean that the email came from Social Security. Criminals fake email addresses to fool targets.
- Misspelled Words. Emails with misspelled words and sentence fragments likely did not come from the Social Security Administration. Consider these a warning of possible fraud.
- Request to click a link. Any email that claims to identify a problem easily solved by clicking a link to a website is suspicious. Delete the email.
- Emails or Phone Calls Threatening to Reduce or Terminate Benefits. The Social Security Administration will not call you or email you with a threat to terminate benefits. If you receive one of these contacts, consider it fraud and hang up the phone or delete the email.
- Requests for Payment of Fees. The Social Security Administration will not request that you pay a fee to increase benefits or avoid a suspension of benefits. If you receive such a request, consider it fraud and terminate the communication.
The Social Security Administration will not take the following actions:
- Threaten you with arrest or legal action if you do not provide information or pay a fee;
- Request payment by gift card, wire transfer, cash, or Bitcoin or other internet money systems;
- Suspend your Social Security Number;
- Demand secrecy, including not telling friends or family about the communication;
- Send you an unrequested text message regarding problems with your benefits or information;
- Send documents via email containing your personal information.
If you are the target of a fraud scam, you should report it to the local Social Security office or the Office of the Inspector General of the Social Security Administration. In addition, you should take the following steps to prevent theft of your personal information:
- Do not click on any links in an email or text message. Go to the Social Security website if you need information online. If you click a link on a phishing email, it will take you to a phony site nearly identical to the SSA site.
- Do not give personal information to someone who calls you. Hang up, find the number for the Social Security Administration online, and call them regarding the issue identified by the caller. If the contact you received actually originated from Social Security, the agency will direct you to the correct division. Do not call the number on your caller ID or a call back number given to you by the caller.
- Do not open any attachments in suspicious emails. Often, attachments to such emails contain computer viruses designed to steal your personal information, including log in ids, passwords, Social Security number, and other financial or personal information.
- Do not agree to pay any fee requested by a caller or email. Hang up and seek advice from your local Social Security office. If there is a fee required, make sure they fully explain the reason for the payment.
- Before taking any steps, ask friends or family members whether they find the communication suspicious. If they do, or even if you remain unsure about the legitimacy of the communication, contact the Social Security Administration directly.
The information stolen in a Social Security scam includes nearly everything needed for a damaging identity theft situation. It could force the closure and reopening of all of the victim’s bank and credit card accounts. It could require sending updated information to a host of businesses, consuming hours. A replacement Social Security card and even a new Social Security number could be necessary. By taking these simple steps to safeguard against Social Security Scams, you significantly reduce your risk of losing thousands of dollars to criminals.