Say what you will about Washington politics, but older Americans generally still trust many of the federal government’s agencies and operations. Unfortunately, crooks know this. The AARP Fraud Watch Network has been inundated with calls about scams involving someone impersonating an IRS agent, Medicare official, Social Security Administration officer, FBI agent or other government worker.
The Federal Trade Commission received more than 2.5 million reports of these scams from 2017 through the middle of 2022, with losses of more than $2 billion. As a result, the FTC has just proposed a rule that would help hold the impersonators accountable, and help the commission recover some of the money stolen from scam victims. Among other things, the rule would ban the fraudulent use of government logos and fake .gov email addresses. (The FTC is now seeking public comments at regulations.gov.)
Here are some of the more common impostor frauds.
1. FTC fakes
The Helpline recently heard from a victim who lost $150,000 to this scam, where a caller pretends to be an FTC commissioner and asks for or demands money, in the form of gift cards, cryptocurrency, or you name it. The FTC warns that this scam is on the rise, and notes, “Whether the caller promises you a prize or threatens you with arrest — and even if they give a (fake) badge number — that’s a scammer.” It adds that the FTC will never call, email, text or message you on social media to ask for money, nor will it threaten you with arrest. The agency asks people who receive these calls to report them to ReportFraud.ftc.gov.
2. Medicare malice
A 90-year-old Maine resident received a call from someone claiming to be a Medicare official. The impostor said that Medicare was sending out new plastic cards to protect beneficiaries from the spread of COVID-19. The caller needed to confirm his Medicare number to make sure the card was accurate. He gave his Medicare number to the scammer but reported the incident to Medicare in time to stop any rip-offs.
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3. Grants grift
A “friend” on Facebook told a 69-year-old Riverside, California, woman that she had received a large federal grant. The woman was eventually talked into sending $65,000 for a promised $180,000 federal grant that never came. Turns out that the Facebook friend’s account was hacked and the contact had come from a scammer.
The government won’t reach out to offer you a federal grant. Grants require an application, and they are always for a specific purpose.
4. Social Security scam
An 85-year-old Maryland woman got a call from someone pretending to be a federal agent who said her Social Security number had been stolen and used to rent a car that was involved in a violent crime. This incident had compromised both her Social Security and bank accounts, she was told, and both were to be “suspended.” To keep access to money she needed to pay her bills, she was told to go to a local store and convert her cash in the bank to Bitcoin, then transfer it to a secure account that was set up for her. She did — and lost $8,000 to impostors.
5. Student-loan con
A couple in Indianapolis got a call from someone who stated his government agency was handling the student-loan-forgiveness debt-cancellation program that President Biden had signed into law. The caller just needed their Social Security and banking information to complete the application. The couple complied, but then they grew suspicious and reported the encounter to the bank in time to stop any losses.
6. FBI flimflam
A 79-year-old Pembroke Pines, Florida, man was contacted by a fake FBI agent who said he had won a $1.9 million sweepstakes, but the money was being held until he could pay fees and taxes. He eventually sent $100,000 to what he believed was the FBI consumer affairs branch, and the money has not been recovered.
The bottom line: Don’t let your instinct to cooperate with someone claiming to be with the federal government be your downfall. This list of government practices should help you spot impostors.
Here are some things the government does and doesn’t do.
- The federal government will not call you unsolicited and ask for personal information. The agencies already have details like your Medicare and Social Security numbers.
- Any important communications from the federal government usually come via the U.S. Postal Service.
- No federal government agency will initiate a serious contact with you through social media, text or email.
- The government won’t reach out to offer you a federal grant. Grants require an application, and they are always for a specific purpose.
- No government office will ask you for an upfront payment before sending you a benefit, grant or refund.
- The government won’t suspend benefits from Social Security or Medicare because someone else misused your identification. Federal law enforcement agents also won’t bully you into revealing personal information such as your bank account number.
- Agencies won’t take payments in prepaid gift cards, wire transfers or cryptocurrency.
Amy Nofziger is the director of victim support for the AARP Fraud Watch Network.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on Oct. 6, 2021. It has been updated with information about an additional reported impostor scam.