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Between COVID, soaring inflation and now rising interest rates, the lives of many working folks have been upended over the past few years. And while recipients of Social Security may not have to clock in to get their check, it’s affecting some of them, too. That’s because criminals are using a number of tricks to scam the elderly of Social Security income.
The economic uncertainty provides a perfect cover for scammers, who are exploiting the fear and rampant rumors to prey upon senior citizens and trying harder than ever to tap their key source of income.
Here are three prominent Social Security-related scams and what you need to watch out for. The scams below are among the most recent, and some have been highlighted by the Social Security Administration (SSA) as ones to be particularly careful about. These scams are just a part of a massive wave of COVID-related scams already out there.
1. A fraudulent letter threatening suspension of benefits
When uncertainty hits the economy, many seniors become worried that they won’t get their benefits. Criminals prey upon this fear with a relatively new scam targeting Social Security recipients with a letter telling them that their benefits will be suspended or permanently discontinued unless they call a phone number provided in the letter.
When unsuspecting seniors call, a scammer tries to obtain their personal information or convince them to pay money – through retail gift cards, cash or wire transfers – in order to keep their benefits.
Even if a local Social Security office may close, that won’t stop seniors from getting their checks. “Any communication you receive that says Social Security will do so is a scam, whether you receive it by letter, text, email, or phone call,” according to the SSA’s website.
Moreover, Social Security will not threaten seniors with suspended benefits, arrest or legal action unless they pay money. It also won’t promise higher benefits in exchange for payment.
2. Calls asking for a Social Security number to activate Medicare
In this scam, fraudsters will call seniors and claim that they need their Social Security number and other personal information such as date of birth in order to activate or replace a Medicare card. They may take a Medicare number as well, because of the potential to bilk that system.
“Even though Social Security numbers were removed from Medicare cards in 2019, scammers can still do damage when provided with a Medicare number,” says Leslie Tayne, head attorney at Tayne Law Group in Melville, New York. “These numbers can be used to fill prescriptions, file false claims, or even be sold on the dark web to other criminals.”
“Some thieves will offer to ‘upgrade’ a victim’s paper benefits card to a plastic one — which doesn’t exist — for a fee and simultaneously steal [their] credit card information,” says Tayne.
3. Fake text messages about a problem with your Social Security number
Another recent scam involves criminals sending text messages that appear to come from the Social Security Administration. The fake texts try to scare the recipient by saying that there’s a problem with their Social Security number and asking them to return a call to a scam number in order to avoid further legal problems.
When seniors call the number, fraudsters try to coax personal and financial information from the victim and may also ask for money to resolve the alleged problem.
Social Security will never contact you via text and ask you to call an unknown number. In fact, the program will only contact you in limited situations, such as when you’ve signed up for text messaging and when you try to access your account online as a way to verify your identity.
As always, Social Security retirement benefits are a result of an individual’s earned income, not special payments that you’ve made.
How to stay protected
The first step in defeating the scammers is to be suspicious of anyone who claims to be from Social Security and says there’s a problem or asks for any kind of personal information.
“Unfortunately some of these scams will sound legitimate at first, and unless you know that they are actually occurring, you could easily fall victim to them,” says Jordan Sowhangar, CFP and wealth advisor at Girard in Souderton, Pennsylvania.
If you’re having problems determining whether the call is real, ask questions. Sowhangar says: “Ask questions and do not provide any information over the phone. The more questions you ask, the more likely the scammer is to get frustrated or annoyed and give up on the scam.”
“If you’re ever unsure of any company’s credibility that reaches out to you via phone, hang up and call their direct line,” says Mark Ruchie, chief information security officer at Entrust Datacard.
But seniors can even take more proactive measures before that, says Tayne.
“The best step that seniors can take to protect themselves is screening their phone calls,” she says. “Program contacts into your home phone or cell phone or ask a loved one to do so.”
“Seniors need to be vigilant,” says Ruchie. “Check the source of new emails and texts and think before you click on links and attachments. Do the links lead to trusted sources, like IRS.gov or SSA.gov? When you follow a new link, click on the padlock in the browser bar and on the certificate to verify that the website has a valid owner. These are basic best practices that everyone should follow.”
How to spot a Social Security scam
Vigilant consumers should be on the lookout for the telltale signs of a scammer. In general, scammers are looking to provoke an emotional reaction so that you act before you’re able to think, coaxing you to give up vital information that can then be used to defraud you.
- Threatening language: Scammers look to rile you up so that you’re scared and act before your better instincts kick in. Threats might involve imprisonment or being cut off from Social Security or Medicare.
- Accusatory language: Fraudsters may accuse you of illegal activity on your account in order to stoke your emotions.
- Immediate payment: If someone reaches out claiming to be from Social Security and demands immediate payment, then it’s a scam.
- Secrecy: If a phone call insists on secrecy, then it’s a scam.
- Text messages: If you receive a text that tells you to call an unknown number, then it’s fraudulent. You won’t get texts from Social Security unless you’ve opted into them.
- “Phishing” emails: These emails may look close to the real thing, but they’re designed to make you click on a link that takes you to a look-alike but fraudulent Social Security site. Once there, you’ll be asked for personal information. Legitimate emails from Social Security do not ask for personal information.
- Further requests for personal information: Scammers may devise new methods for tricking consumers or rely on more proven ones, such as traditional mail. Either way, they’re out for your personal info, so be wary whenever you receive an unsolicited contact purporting to come from Social Security.
How to report a Social Security scam
From there, you have more concrete steps to take. The SSA advises you to hang up on any calls and report them immediately to the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). You can also call the government agency at 1-800-269-0271 to report the scam. If you’re the victim of identity theft, you can contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to report that issue.
You’ll need to provide as much detail on your interaction with the scammer as possible, including the “who, what, when, where, how and why,” according to the OIG website.
Then tell friends and family so they can be on the lookout for the scam. The more people who report a scam, the more likely other people are to see and hear about it before they’re tricked.
Rising prices and economic uncertainty put more targets on the backs of seniors, who are already a special focus of many scammers. But a few practical steps and some vigilance can help stop many of the scams before they get started, helping keep America’s seniors just a bit safer.