The Social Security Administration (SSA) recently issued a warning about an upsurge in schemes targeting Social Security recipients. Someone calls you over the phone claiming to be from the SSA and says your Social Security accounts have been suspended due to suspicion of illegal activity. They may be a real live person or a robocaller. The caller then says that if you fail to resolve the issue by calling back a certain phone number, your assets will be frozen.
Pretty scary, right? Especially when a majority of older people rely on Social Security benefits for a large part of their income after retirement. The specter of criminal prosecution or the freezing of vital assets can frighten elderly Social Security recipients into giving the caller whatever information he or she asks for.
And guess what: That information -- which may include your Social Security number, your mother's maiden name, your date of birth, and your bank account numbers -- will be used for identity theft.
Social Security scams are widespread
Unfortunately, this is only the most recent of many scams targeting Social Security recipients. Several years ago, many Social Security beneficiaries received an email purporting to be from the SSA. It used a highly official-looking email address, "email@example.com," and asked recipients to click on a link to receive augmented protection for their benefits.
Fraudsters have set up fake websites looking like the SSA portal to entice people to apply for Social Security benefits. Callers can also duplicate the Washington, D.C., area code so you're more likely to believe you've been called by a government agency. So don't be fooled by calls, emails, or websites that look official.
Make no mistake: All of these communications are designed to defraud the recipients. They are undertaken with the intent of stealing your personal information, which can be used to drain your bank and other accounts.
Three steps to protect yourself
If you're targeted by one of these calls, take these three steps to protect yourself.
1. Hang up immediately
If you are contacted out of the blue by the SSA, it is in all probability a fraudster. The SSA says it calls Social Security beneficiaries only in response to something the beneficiary has initiated, such as a question or request for help. So if you get an unsolicited call from the SSA, it's likely not them.
Hang up immediately. Some robocalls will ask you to press a button to stop getting these calls. Don't respond! Fraudsters use these responses to identify potential victims.
If you have contacted the SSA recently and want to verify that the caller is actually from the agency, call the SSA at 1-800-772-1213. This is a customer service line through which you can ascertain whether the caller is authentic and determine what they were calling about.
2. Never provide personal information over the telephone to an unknown caller
Don't give out your personal information over the telephone to someone you don't know, whether they seem to be threatening action or not. The information is likely to be used in ways that will harm you, not help you.
If the caller asks to verify information, don't say "yes." They may be recording your voice. The word "yes" can then be used out of context -- to authorize charges on your bank accounts and credit cards, for example.
3. Report the call to the SSA
Finally, you should report the call to the SSA. Scams involving people who claim to be from the SSA are frequent enough that the SSA has a Fraud Hotline. You can reach it at 1-800-269-0271 or, if you're hearing-impaired, at 1-866-501-2101 (TTY). You can also report fraud online at https://oig.ssa.gov/report.
Reporting an attempted scam helps the SSA alert the public to both the frequency and the nature of these potential frauds. You're not only protecting yourself, but also helping protect the public.