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Impostor Scams

En español | Impostor scams are exactly what they sound like — crooks pose as someone (or something) else to try to convince you to send them money.

This is the most common form of fraud reported to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which logged nearly 500,000 complaints about impostor scams in 2020. Those cons collectively cost victims $1.2 billion, with a median loss of $850.

Impostor scams generally start with an unsolicited phone call, email, text or social media message. Fraudsters impersonate people and organizations you would ordinarily trust, or at least hear out. The most common pose involves government agencies such as Social SecurityMedicare or the IRS. But crooks might adopt any number of guises, including:

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Whatever the pose, the message will be urgent: A bill is overdue. An account has been compromisedA computer is infected. A cause needs your support. A loved one is in trouble. Some impostors pretend to be bearing good news — you’ve won a lottery, say, or a government grant. Resolving the problem or claiming the prize is a simple matter of making an immediate payment (preferably by gift card or wire transfer) or providing personal data such as a Social Security or bank account number.
Most impostor scams are quick hits — the goal is to cajole or frighten you into making a rash decision, then disappear. But some crooks create entire fake personas on dating sites or social media and then invest weeks in cultivating relationships online. The method is different, but the end is the same: The impostor will eventually ask for money, for a reason that sounds plausible and by a method that’s probably not traceable.

Warning Signs

  • You receive an unsolicited call or email claiming you owe money to a business, utility or the government, and risk dire consequences such as arrest or an account being frozen if you don’t pay immediately.
  • A caller says you’ve won a prize or qualify for a grant, but you must pay an upfront fee to collect it.
  • A caller claims to be from a tech company or internet service provider that has detected a virus or malware on your computer.
  • You receive a call or text message from someone who claims to be your grandchild or another close relation and to need money for an emergency.
  • The person contacting you asks for payment by wire transfer, gift card, prepaid debit card or cash. Scammers favor these methods because they are hard to track.


  • Do confirm independently whether a business, utility or government agency is indeed trying to reach you. Use the customer service numbers or email addresses listed on invoices, account statements and legitimate corporate and government websites.
  • Do hang up on unsolicited callers offering to fix computer problems. Companies like Apple and Microsoft will not contact you for tech support unless you have requested help, and they will not ask for personal information.
  • Do report impostor scams to the company or institution being impersonated.
  • Do cut off contact if you suspect someone you’ve forged a bond with online is an impostor.


  • Don’t give sensitive information such as credit card details or your Social Security number over the phone unless you’re sure of whom you are dealing with.
  • Don’t make a payment or allow remote access to your computer to someone who calls out of the blue offering tech support.
  • Don’t send money to someone you don’t know, someone you think you may know but are not sure, or someone you’ve only met online.
  • Don’t rely on caller ID to determine if a call is legitimate. Scammers use spoofing tools to make it appear they are calling from a genuine government or business number.

More Resources

Updated February 22, 2021

About the Fraud Watch Network

Whether you have been personally affected by scams or fraud or are interested in learning more, the AARP Fraud Watch Network advocates on your behalf and equips you with the knowledge you need to feel more informed and confidently spot and avoid scams.

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