En español | Crooks posing as Social Security employees triggered a record-shattering number of complaints in 2020 and led to nearly $45 million in victim losses, proving pandemic shutdowns did not stanch what the Social Security commissioner called a “terrible” problem.
In what has emerged as the No. 1 impostor scam afflicting a U.S. agency, there were more than 718,000 complaints about Social Security impostors during the 12 months ended Sept. 30, 2020, a significant jump from the roughly 478,000 reported during the same period the previous year.
The average victim lost $6,100 in calendar year 2020, though historically losses for some individuals have been much higher. A 27-year-old Chicago-area man is awaiting sentencing after admitting he and his accomplices ripped off an older woman in Massachusetts for more than $900,000.
The bad actors posed as Social Security Administration (SSA) and U.S. Department of Justice officials, and told victims that their identities had been stolen and they needed to transfer money to various bank accounts.
Older people have more to lose
Federal officials said that while the Social Security impostor scam is not necessarily targeted at older Americans, losses for older victims may be steeper, since they generally have more money than younger people.
Andrew Saul, SSA commissioner, and Gail Ennis, the agency’s inspector general, discussed the rise in impostor scams on the eve of National Slam the Scam Day, which falls on March 4. As part of the effort, the agencies and their private-sector partners — one is AARP — promote scam awareness and prevention.
SSA chief ‘deeply troubled’
“I’m deeply troubled that crooks are still deceiving Americans,” Saul told reporters. He said his agency’s programs require interaction with the public, adding, “We cannot afford to have fraud affect that communication or the public’s trust in us.” Saul, who said that even he and his wife had been contacted by a Social Security impostor, appears in a 2020 public service announcement (PSA) about these scams. The announcement has been viewed more than 206 million times.
The goal of impostor scammers is to get people to turn over money or sensitive personal information. Often the criminals instill fear in their victims, telling them there is a problem with their Social Security number or account and threatening them with arrest. Some victims are told their Social Security numbers have been linked to crimes.
New tactic: Fake ID badges
In a new twist, impostors are using the names of real officials at the SSA or its Office of the Inspector General, a watchdog agency, and sending victims photos of fabricated government ID badges, Saul said. Or the fraudster will try to lend legitimacy to a scam by citing a badge number, he said.
What should people do if they get one of these calls? The first thing, said Saul, is hang up. “Don’t engage with the caller. Hang up,” he said. “Never provide the caller with personal information or money, cash, gift cards, wire transfers or prepaid debit cards.”
He also stressed the importance of reporting the scam to this website.
Scammers exploit emotions
Ennis said legitimate SSA employees will never send another person a photo of their official government IDs. Discussing the tactics bad actors use, she said, “Scammers prey on what psychologists describe as a habitual reliance on people in authority, and they sometimes keep victims in a state of isolation and heightened emotion to cloud their judgments.”
She explained that these imposters, instead of singling out older people, are robocalling in massive numbers. “It’s just a volume business,” she said.
Ennis cited recent successes: cracking down on call spoofing (falsifying data transmitted to caller ID) and shutting down five U.S. firms that had transmitted hundreds of millions of overseas scam robocalls to consumers in this country. She said there were more than 20 investigations underway of people and firms responsible for either making these calls or profiting from them.
As a result of the efforts of her agency and its partners, she said, one telecom carrier had ended its relationship with customers that collectively transmitted 27 million calls a day into the U.S.
Preaching scam prevention
The two officials praised scam-prevention efforts underway at the U.S. Postal Service, CVS, Walmart and Home Depot with a mix of posters, in-store announcements and PSAs.
Two final tips:
- Genuine SSA employees will never promise to increase your benefits or resolve an identity theft issue if you pay a fee or move your money into a “protected” account.
- If you owe money to Social Security, the agency will mail you a letter with your payment options and appeal rights. SSA does not suspend Social Security numbers or demand secrecy from you in order to resolve a problem.
Social Security impostors rank No. 1 when it comes to government impersonation scams, having bumped IRS impostors out of the top spot. Complaints about Social Security impostor fraud come from reports to SSA and the Federal Trade Commission, a consumer-protection agency that accepts complaints at ReportFraud.ftc.gov. That suggests the problem is even bigger than the numbers show.
Katherine Skiba covers scams and fraud for AARP. Previously she was a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, U.S. News & World Report, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. She was a recipient of Harvard University's Nieman Fellowship and is the author of the book, Sister in the Band of Brothers: Embedded with the 101st Airborne in Iraq.