Chicago Tribune (Sunday)
Spotting and avoiding Social Security scams
unheard of, Social Security scams pose an evolving and increasingly sophisticated threat to older Americans. The sheer number of the frauds is remarkable.
In 2021, the Federal Trade Commission received more than 568,000 reports of Social Security-related scam attempts, totaling more than $63.6 million in losses to victims, says Steve Grobman, senior vice president and chief technology officer at San Jose, California-based computer security software company McAfee Corp.
Often, fraudsters reach out by phone or email to potential victims, claiming to be from the Social Security Administration (SSA). These callers or emailers may use caller ID, texts or documents that appear legitimate but are not. Their fraudulent message to potential victims is that their Social Security benefits have been suspended or their Social Security Number (SSN) has been compromised as a result of suspicious activity.
They explain that because of these SSN or account issues, the person on the other end must pay a fine or debt, often using prepaid debit cards or retail gift cards.
Myriad red flags offer tipoffs these are rip-offs. First, the SSA contacts Americans through the traditional mail system, never by phone or email. The SSA doesn’t threaten people with arrest or lawsuits if they balk at handing over money. The SSA doesn’t ask people for their SSNs, suspend SSNs or offer greater benefits in return for payments.
Above all, it doesn’t demand people pay the SSA by means of gift cards, prepaid debit cards, wire transfers, cryptocurrency or cash sent through the U.S. postal system.
If anyone — especially a stranger — ever asks you to pay anything using a prepaid gift card, it is undoubtedly a scam, says Daniel Farber Huang, CEO of New York City, New York-based financial and cybersecurity consultancy Echostream Group.
Perpetrators instruct the target to provide gift card numbers and PINs for the amount requested. “Once that information is shared to a scammer and they withdraw the funds, it’s impossible for the victim to recover those lost funds,” Huang says.
Also guard against “phishing” schemes that Internet scam artists use to trick recipients into divulging confidential information. These attempts are often carried out by asking recipients to click on malicious links or open pernicious attachments.
“For scams in general, including this one, look for fear tactics to get you to act now,” says Hope Oje, author of “SCAM! The Book.”“Process the communication you’ve received before you act. If it sounds scary or forceful, it could be fake.”
One of the oft-recommended steps in helping combat Social Security fraud is creating your own personal ”my Social Security” account.
“Only one account can exist per Social Security number,” says John Wilson, senior fellow, threat research, at Eden Prairie, Minnesota-based cybersecurity software provider Fortra. “Make sure you’re the one creating and controlling the account for your number. Use it to monitor earnings and benefit distributions for accuracy.”
Independently verify information you receive purporting to be from the SSA. “If you are concerned a claim against you may be legitimate, never reply to any phone number, email or link that may be included in the warning message,” Huang says.
Instead, he says, research online to find the official phone number or website of the entity making the threat, and contact it directly to verify information is authentic.
While government agencies reach out through mail, “so can scammers, so you need to independently verify any correspondence you receive for legitimacy,” he says.
If you receive a call you consider suspicious, hang up on the caller and report the call to oig.ssa.gov. Don’t return calls, emails or texts from entities you don’t know. Don’t provide callers, texters or emailers money or personal information.
If you are victimized and unknowingly provide personal information, check your credit reports for unauthorized charges or changes, Huang says. “Review your reports,” he adds. “Make note of any account or transaction you don’t recognize and contact those companies to report the fraud. Also, freeze your credit. A credit freeze is a free service you can use to protect yourself from credit fraud resulting from identity theft. When you freeze your credit reports, it makes it harder for criminals who may have stolen your personal credentials such as account numbers, passwords or Social Security number to take out loans or open new credit cards in your name.”
The SSA asks those receiving suspect communications to gather as much information as possible. If possible, capture a screenshot or photo of the email, text message or website. Recipients should attempt to capture the entire message and any links included in the message. They should also inform the SSA as to whether they received the suspect message directly or came across it in some other way.
Suspicious U.S. postal mailings should be scanned or photographed in their entirety, including the front and back of the outside envelope. The mailing should be retained for at least 30 days after the report has been made to the SSA, because the administration may want to take possession of the hard copy of the mailing.
Frauds can be reported on the “Report Fraud” website of the Office of the Inspector General, Social Security Administration at oig.ssa.gov/report.
“With a Social Security Number, a thief can unlock everything from credit history and credit line to tax refunds and medical care,” Grobman reports. “In extreme cases, thieves can use it to impersonate others. So if you suspect your number is lost or stolen, it’s important to report identify theft to Social Security right away. Your SSN is effectively forever, which means if it’s stolen, you’re still faced with clearing up any of the malicious activity associated with the theft, potentially for quite some time. That’s yet another reason why the protection of your SSN deserves particular attention.”