Millions of Americans rely on Social Security to support themselves once they retire. And it's vitally important to safeguard your Social Security benefits because, unfortunately, there are many criminals who prey on older Americans in an effort to steal valuable personal and financial information. With that information, thieves can wreak all kinds of havoc in your life, as anyone who's been the victim of identity theft can attest.

There's a wide variety of scams by criminals trying to use Social Security to do mischief. But there's one in particular that just won't die. On several occasions over the past couple of years, the Social Security Administration (SSA) Office of the Inspector General has warned Americans about the rash of con artists seeking to get vital information by following a simple strategy: impersonating government employees from the SSA itself.

Three Social Security cards with a brass key on top of them.

Image source: Getty Images.

How this Social Security scam works

Gale Stallworth Stone, the Social Security Administration's acting inspector general, says the schemes all involve suspicious phone calls that claim to be from a department of the SSA. The first step of the scam typically involves an automated message featuring someone who says that either the Office of the Inspector General or the broader Social Security Administration has had to suspend your Social Security account, number, and benefits. The message doesn't provide any details, instead saying that you need to call a separate phone number in order to get the outstanding problems resolved.

If you make the mistake of calling the number that's provided in the message, you'll get even more bad news. In some cases, the criminal on the other end of the line tells you that a warrant is outstanding for your arrest. To resolve the problem, you're supposed to purchase gift cards or prepaid debit cards and provide the financial information to the criminal. Victims who follow these instructions end up losing the hundreds of dollars they spend to buy these gift cards and prepaid cards.

Some scam artists are more subtle. Rather than asking you to send cash or other valuables, the criminal simply starts asking you to verify your personal information. This can be even more sinister, because if you mistakenly believe that you're actually talking to an SSA employee, then it might not even occur to you that the person on the other end of the line might not actually have all this information right there already. Before you know it, you might have given up your Social Security number, birth date, and other information most commonly used by financial institutions to safeguard things like your bank accounts, credit cards, and investments.

Always be on guard

One thing that some older Americans have trouble understanding is that the days of trusting anyone on the telephone are over. As the SSA inspector general explains, there are only a few special situations in which government employees call people to confirm personal information, and you should already be aware that such a call is coming before it's made. Most people will never get an official phone call from any government agency, as entities like the SSA and the Internal Revenue Service more commonly use mail for official communications.

The most important point of all is that you should never call back someone claiming to be a government official until you verify that the phone number they've given is legitimate. The SSA urges you to call it at 1-800-772-1213 or to contact your local Social Security office directly if you want to confirm whether someone from the agency actually contacted you. If you have been the target of a scam, call the inspector general at 1-800-269-0271 to report it.

Don't fall for scams

Older Americans are often targets of criminals, and given how important Social Security is to retirees, it's not surprising to find scammers who use the program as their way to get your financial and personal information. By knowing how con artists are most likely to try to trick their victims, it's easier to be on guard for them if they target you.