Avoid these 3 common Social Security scams and how to stay protected

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The coronavirus has upended the lives of many working folks, 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 the following tricks to scam the elderly of Social Security income.

Of course, the coronavirus has been tough for older Americans in other ways, most notably the fact that it poses more health risks for them. The coronavirus and the rough economy provide a perfect cover for scammers, who are exploiting the uncertainty 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.

Watch out for these 3 Social Security scams on the rise

The Social Security 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 coronavirus-related scams already out there.

1. A fraudulent letter threatening suspension of benefits

With many local Social Security offices closed due to the ongoing pandemic, many seniors are 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.

While a local Social Security office may be closed, 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 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.

What can seniors do to protect themselves?

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, says Sowhangar. “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.

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 (https://oig.ssa.gov). Then tell your 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 scammed.

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 asked 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.”

Finally, the SSA reminds you that no government agency will call you unsolicited to suspend a Social Security number or to resolve identity theft in exchange for money. They also won’t insist that you pay fines immediately or insist on secrecy about a legal problem.

Bottom line

The coronavirus crisis puts another target 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.

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