Social Security Scams Abound. Watch Out for This One.

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Benjamin Franklin famously said that nothing is certain but death and taxes. To that, he could have added Social Security scams.

Fraudsters have long been calling Social Security benefit recipients and telling them their Social Security number is being suspended for criminal or fraudulent activity -- and that the government is taking action against them. The action ranges from an arrest warrant to an active lawsuit.

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To end this supposed action, victims are told to call another number. When they do, folks running the scam will ask them to pay a fine (often through gift cards). They will also be asked personal information, such as their bank account numbers, date of birth, and so on. If they supply it, fraudsters can utilize it to take money from their accounts.

With a Social Security number and a date of birth, it's even possible to sign up for benefits (if the rightful Social Security account holder hasn't yet) or, if they have, to divert benefits to another address and bank account. Scam artists can simply contact the Social Security Administration (SSA) and ask to change the address or bank account. The first indication the rightful recipient would have is the failure of their benefits to arrive.

A new spin

But a new wrinkle in this venerable scam was recently reported. In this one, recipients of a call are told that their Social Security number has been suspended due not to their own actions but to more general "suspicious activity."

Instead of being given another number to call, the victims are told to simply press 1, and they'll be connected with a Social Security agent. Instead, they are connected to a fraudulent agent, who may ask them to verify their Social Security number. Once they verify it, the fraudster has it. Fines and bank account numbers are part of this one, too.

Senior citizens are targets

Unfortunately, Social Security fraud is all too frequently perpetrated against senior citizens. Most senior citizens rely on Social Security for at least part of their income, and many rely on it for a sizable percentage of it. They may be very frightened of a possible suspension of the number and hence the benefit.

Senior citizens also often don't realize how easy it is to imitate even an agency of the U.S. government. In the past, scam artists have set up phone numbers with 202 area codes (the one used in Washington, D.C.) and email accounts with ssa.gov as part of the address -- which is part of the actual online address of the SSA. They have set up fake SSA websites that look very convincing.

This time of year, there may be a third wrinkle. Tax returns, refunds, and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), another federal agency, are in the minds, computers, and mailboxes of many people. Senior citizens and the rest of the population might be more likely to believe that someone from the U.S. government is actually contacting them about suspicious activity during this period than any other.

Take precautions if you're contacted

It's important not to react if someone contacts you saying they're from the SSA by phone or email. Instead, take three precautions.

1. Know the SSA's policies

In general, the SSA and its agents will not suddenly call or email someone. The SSA, like the IRS, communicates by letter. It may at times call or email to follow up on an issue, but the original contact will come by letter.

2. Don't give out any information

Once you know that the real SSA is not going to make such a serious charge as fraud or suspicious activity over the telephone, the next step is easy.

Don't engage with the caller. Don't give out any information of any kind. Don't fall for one of their favorite tricks -- verifying a Social Security or bank account number they already have part of. They can use it once they have it.

It's a good idea, in fact, to hang up on the call. Some fraudsters record and use the victim's voice, particularly saying "yes." They can then use the recording to verify and authorize transfers from bank and other accounts.

3. Report the incident

If this scam happens to you, report it to the SSA. The SSA maintains a Fraud Hotline at 1-800-269-0271. If you're hearing impaired, call 1-866-501-2101 (TTY). Scams about Social Security can also be reported online here.

The government alerts people to these scams based partly on the number of reports. It's important to public safety to keep the public aware.

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