Last summer, an older American in Peabody, Massachusetts, got surprising news in the mail: Their Social Security benefits were going up by $240 a month because of a cost-of-living increase. But the letter was phonier than a $3 bill.
One clue that it was fake: When there is an annual bump in benefits due to inflation (and such yearly increases aren’t guaranteed), the Social Security Administration (SSA) mails cost-of-living notices in December. So the supposed COLA notice in a letter dated Aug. 30 was phony baloney. Another tell-tale sign: The fake letter advised the recipient to call a toll-free number to tack on those extra bucks. But genuine increases appear automatically when a new year rolls around — beneficiaries don’t need to lift a finger.
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Similar letters have been mailed to people in California, Florida and Ohio, according to officials of SSA’s watchdog arm, its Office of Inspector General (OIG). The SSA-OIG takes the lead in combating the modern-day nightmare that has seen Social Security impostors rip off individuals for as much as $1 million each, says AJ Monaco, the special agent in charge of the major case unit at SSA-OIG.
There have been nearly 312,000 reports of Social Security impostors, with overall losses topping $95 million, during the five years ending Dec. 31, 2021, federal government figures show.
9 tell-tale signs of a scam
A large-scale, multifaceted effort by the government to spread the word about these scammers — and stop them — includes the watchdog office’s warnings about the nine tell-tale signs of a Social Security scam. If an impostor reaches out in a call, text, email, letter or social media post, you can be sure it’s a scam if he:
1. Threatens to suspend your Social Security number
2. Warns of arrest or other legal action
3. Demands or requests immediate payment
4. Requires payment by gift card, prepaid debit card, internet currency or by mailing cash
5. Pressures you to disclose personal information
6. Requests secrecy
7. Threatens to seize your bank account
8. Promises to increase your Social Security benefit
9. Tries to gain your trust by providing fake “documentation,” false “evidence,” or even the name of a bona fide government official
An investigation found that fake letters like the one sent to Peabody, Massachusetts, were designed either to induce recipients to turn over personal and financial information or, even worse, to use people as pawns to launder money or commit other frauds, Monaco says.
What prompts victims to part with their funds? According to Monaco, it is lies like these:
“We have to repair your Social Security number.”
“We have to work with the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] and the federal criminal process to repair it.”
“We just need to have you move [your money] over here for safekeeping, because otherwise we might have to arrest you.”
It’s an unconscionable scam that ensnared the wife of a Utah state lawmaker in 2019, when Social Security impostor scams were skyrocketing.
Cash-hungry crooks switch up tactics
That criminals more recently have sent out letters that carry bogus SSA logos and are rife with lies signifies how rapidly their tactics evolve as they use different methods to pretend to be actual Social Security employees, according to Monaco, whose own Linked In profile was hijacked in a bid to lend authenticity to one such fraud. Thankfully, the victim who reported that to authorities didn’t take the bait, he says.
A Naval Academy graduate and former Marine, Monaco earlier worked at the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Homeland Security. Since Social Security scams evolve, it’s important to adopt a “security mindset” and view unsolicited contacts with skepticism, he says. If someone is feeding you preposterous stories, and you’re told to keep them secret, “hang up, step back and figure it out.” Fraud experts also generally advise turning to a trusted friend who can help a target smell a rat.
And beware, Monaco says, when the scammer launches into the inevitable hard sell to coerce potential victims to act quickly.
If asked for gift cards, cryptocurrency or wire transfers, know these are red flags. Experts including Monaco say such funds are hard to recover once handed over.
Victims come from all age groups and need not be near or at Social Security age to succumb, since people get the nine-digit numbers early in life, long before drawing benefits.
One success story, in fact, involved a single mother in Maryland with young children. She was persuaded by a Social Security scammer to ship $20,000 in cash — her life savings — to a pharmacy in Phoenix. The ruse: Sending the money would prevent her arrest, an impostor told her.
Monaco’s team contacted the shipping company and intercepted the package before it reached its intended destination. The woman got her money back in less than 24 hours, Monaco says, and evidence in the case showed the attempted crime was tied to other frauds under investigation, he notes. Not only was the relieved victim made whole, but she “wrote a heartfelt thank you to those responsible for recovering this money.”
Even if you haven’t lost funds, it’s important to report contacts with Social Security impostors by visiting oig.ssa.gov/report.
A seasoned lawman, Monaco knows scammers who don’t score gravitate to other niches in the criminal underworld. That could be tech-support scams or frauds tied to mega-retailer Amazon.
Thus, he concludes: Don’t let down your guard. Keep up that “security mindset.” And tell others about ongoing scams because, as he observes, “word of mouth” is a powerful prevention tool.
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.