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New scam targets Social Security checks

CBS News logo CBS News 7/31/2017 Kathy Kristof

Government officials are warning about a rash of cons targeting Social Security beneficiaries.

Posing as agents for the government's cornerstone retirement program, the latest con tries to trick seniors into "verifying" private information -- including Social Security numbers, birth dates and parents' names -- purportedly to provide the senior with a cost-of-living increase in their benefits.

If the senior provides all the requested information, the scammer uses it to contact the real Social Security Administration in an effort to change the person's direct deposit information and steal benefit checks, said Gale Stallworth Stone, Social Security's Acting Inspector General, in a statement.

Though data on the number of seniors taken in this scheme is not known, Stone noted in a consumer advisory that the agency was receiving calls from all over the country complaining about the scam.

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However, this is only the latest in a series of schemes that involve crooks impersonating Social Security staff to steal or extort money. Social Security's Office of Inspector General sent out two alerts in March over a fraud that starts with a recorded phone call warning seniors about a problem with their benefit checks.

If the seniors call the number listed on the recording, they'll be told that a warrant has been issued for the victim's arrest and that the only way to solve the problem is by buying hundreds of dollars' worth of prepaid debit cards "to resolve the warrant."

The Social Security Administration occasionally does overpay seniors and alerts them that the overpayments must be repaid. However, repayments are typically done through deductions in future payments, or by check. The agency never requires that those payments be made via untraceable sources such as gift or prepaid debit cards.

 "This scheme targets unsuspecting persons and uses scare tactics to defraud them of their resources," said Stone in a written warning.  "If an unknown person pressures you on the phone into providing payments or making purchases for odd reasons, don't think twice about hanging up."

A third recent scam appears to specifically target former clients of an unscrupulous Kentucky lawyer, who recently pleaded guilty to filing fake documents to substantiate thousands of bogus Social Security disability claims. These victims get a carrot-and-stick approach. They're told they can get $9,000 in additional payments if they send a $200 fee. But if they fail to send the fee -- or refuse to fall for further extortion requests -- they're threatened with arrest.

Be suspicious of any caller who purports to be from a government agency, said Amy Nofziger, director of regional operations of the AARP Foundation, who works closely with AARP's Fraud Watch Network.

If you think the Social Security Administration might have reason to contact you, hang up and call the agency back at their listed local number or their toll-free headquarters number at 800-772-1213, she suggested.

Never provide private information -- particularly your Social Security number -- to someone whose identity you cannot verify, she added. The caller is often attempting to get this information to engage in identity theft, which involves a crook using your name and Social Security number to apply for credit cards and loans.

If you receive a suspicious call from someone purporting to be with Social Security or the agency's Office of Inspector General, also report the issue to the Office of the Inspector General at 1-800-269-0271 or online via https://oig.ssa.gov/report.

Sharing information helps fraud watchers keep track of new cons and warn potential victims to stay away, Nofziger said.

"Share the information with friends and family and report it to us (AARP's Fraud Watch Network) and the authorities," she added. "Understanding the red flags is the only way to keep from getting taken in these cons."

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