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.
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