Millions of seniors rely on their Social Security benefits to cover their senior living costs, so hearing that those benefits may be withheld is reason enough to get scared. It's this very fear, however, that scammers tend to prey on.

Social Security scams are nothing new and can take a number of different forms. In some cases, you might get a phone call stating that your upcoming Social Security payments will be delayed or held back if you don't provide your bank account details as soon as possible. Or you may be told that you owe the Social Security Administration (SSA) money and the only way to unlock your benefits is to wire funds to a specific account.

Each year, far too many seniors fall victim to Social Security scams, but last year, fraudulent activity was through the roof. In fact, in the course of 2020, there were more than 718,000 reports of Social Security-related phone scams. All told, they cost victims roughly $45 million.

Close-up of older man with somber expression

Image source: Getty Images.

How to spot a Social Security scam

Knowing how to recognize a Social Security scam could help you avoid buying into one. As a general rule, the SSA will not call you out of the blue asking you for personal information. It won't email or text you out of nowhere, either. Furthermore, the SSA will not:

  • Ask you to wire or send money to a random bank account
  • Ask you for a credit card number
  • Ask you to send gift cards to a specific address
  • Threaten to throw you in jail unless you pay a fine
  • Threaten to freeze your benefits if you don't comply with a request to send money
  • Threaten to lower your monthly benefits if you don't pay a fee
  • Promise to boost your benefits if you pay a fee or provide personal information

If the SSA needs to get in touch with you, it will generally send an official letter in the mail. And if that happens, it never hurts to verify that it's legitimate (since scammers can, after all, use the postal service, as well, and forge an SSA letterhead). You can do so by contacting the SSA at (800) 772-1213 and speaking to a live person.

Furthermore, if a criminal tries to contact you, whether via phone, email, or text, you should make a point to report that incident as soon as it happens. While you may be savvy enough to avoid falling victim to a scam, other seniors may be more vulnerable, and reporting what you know could spare another person a world of heartache.

Finally, always store your Social Security card in a safe place, and don't carry it with you unless you're visiting an SSA office and need it for a specific reason. If a criminal gets hold of your Social Security number, you could easily fall victim to identify theft.

Unfortunately, Social Security scams are unlikely to go away anytime soon, so knowing how to avoid them is key. But don't just keep that information to yourself -- share it with your fellow retirees so that no one you know winds up a victim of fraud.