So my wife rings me up at work this morning to tell me about a strange phone call she’d just gotten. An automated voice claiming to be from the Social Security Administration was contacting her about suspicious activity involving her SSN that will result in an immediate suspension of her number if she doesn’t take steps to clear her name. The longer she listened to it the more she thought to herself, “This is bullshit,” and she hung up on the call.
She called me because there was just enough of a nagging doubt that she wanted to make sure she did the right thing. She did. It’s a scam that’s been growing since at least 2017. Here’s a recording of one of these calls:
Gotta admit that I can see how some folks would panic if they got a phone call like that one. It sounds legit enough and it doesn’t help that the scammers are spoofing the real phone number of the SSA (1-800-772-1213) on your Caller ID.
There are two basic types of these calls. One is to try and get you to “verify” your SSN by entering it into the phone so they can attempt Identity Theft. With the other type they try to get you to pay a fee by going out and buying gift cards and then reading off the codes to those cards to the scammer on the phone. This is basically the same scam as the IRS imposter scam that was making the rounds for a few years.
According to the FTC website:
In 2017, we heard from 3,200 people about SSA imposter scams, and those people reported losing nearly $210,000. So far THIS year: more than 35,000 people have reported the scam, and they tell us they’ve lost $10 million.
Source: This is what a Social Security scam sounds like – Federal Trade Commission
The page I’m quoting from was last updated in December of 2018 and it’s only gotten worse since then. From April 2018 to March 2019 the reported losses grew to $19 million.
Here’s the bit that I don’t get: How is it that folks are not recognizing this is a scam as soon as they’re told to go out and buy gift cards and then read the numbers off to the guy on the phone? How is that not a smack over the head that this is not a legit call?
I mean, I can understand falling for the request to verify your SSN because there are lots of occasions (banks, etc.) where you might be asked to do that, but who out there is so dumb to think that a government agency accepts payment by gift cards only or, worse, Bitcoin?
In an updated article about this from this past April, the FTC said:
As the graphic shows, people reported the IRS scam (in blue) in huge numbers for many years, but the new SSA scam (in orange) is trending in the same direction – with a vengeance. People filed over 76,000 reports about Social Security imposters in the past 12 months, with reported losses of $19 million.1 Compare that to the $17 million in reported losses to the IRS scam in its peak year.2 About 36,000 reports and $6.7 million in reported losses are from the past two months alone.
Just 3.4% of people who report the Social Security scam tell us they lost money.3 Most people we hear from are just worried because they believe a scammer has their Social Security number. But when people do lose money, they lose a lot: the median individual reported loss last year was $1,500, four times higher than the median individual loss for all frauds.4 All age groups are reporting this scam in high numbers, with older and younger adults filing loss reports at similar rates.5
People report sending money in unconventional ways. Most often, people say they gave the scammer the PIN numbers on the back of gift cards. Virtual currencies like Bitcoin come in a distant second to gift cards: people say they withdrew money and fed cash into Bitcoin ATMs. With both methods, the scammer gets quick cash while staying anonymous, and the money people thought they were keeping safe is simply gone.
So let’s break a few things down:
- No, your SSN is not about to be suspended, your bank accounts are not about to be seized, and you are not about to have an arrest warrant put out on you. This is bullshit, plain and simple.
- The Social Security Administration will never contact you and tell you to wire them money, send cash, or (for crying out loud) give them gift cards or they’ll suspend your benefits. Never. Doesn’t happen.
- You should never give out your SSN and/or personally identifying info to someone who has called you out of the blue even if you think it’s legit and the Called ID is the real number for whomever is calling. Hang up and call a number you know is associated with whatever you’re dealing with to make sure the request is legit first.
- If you did do the above then go to https://www.identitytheft.gov/SSA to learn what steps you can take to protect yourself from Identity Theft.
- Lastly, report government imposter scams to the FTC at FTC.gov/complaint. To learn more, visit ftc.gov/imposters.
As always, be vigilant. There are a lot of unscrupulous people in this world working hard to scam you out of your money. If something smells like bullshit to you then it’s probably bullshit and you should do some digging before handing over any info or money. Most importantly, remain calm. These assholes are relying on you freaking out to make it easier to get you to do something stupid. Don’t be stupid. Don’t freak out.