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This Social Security scam is just evil

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 8/12/2019 Michelle Singletary
The Social Security number scam is scaring a lot of people into giving crooks money.© BigstockThe Social Security number scam is scaring a lot of people into giving crooks money.

Editor’s note: The opinions in this article are the author’s, as published by our content partner, and do not necessarily represent the views of MSN or Microsoft.

Imagine you’re retired and your primary source of income is your monthly Social Security check.

Your telephone rings and an automated message says your Social Security number has been “suspended” because of some suspicious activity. You may even be threatened with arrest if you don’t call the telephone number provided in the automated message.

If someone calls saying that your Social Security number and the benefits connected to it may be in jeopardy, it’s understandable that you might panic. You’re told that to “reactivate” your Social Security number, you have to pay a fee or buy gift cards. You have reservations, but fear of being cut off from the money you so desperately need overtakes any reservations you may have.

So you call the number.

What comes next can be devastating.

“My mother is 76 and has early Alzheimer’s,” one reader wrote. “She received a call saying that her Social Security information was compromised and that the only way to rectify the situation was to buy $3,200 in gift cards to Target and GameStop and give the codes to an ‘employee.’ She was told the money would be deposited back into her bank account. Obviously, the majority of people would understand that this is a scam, but she is easily confused and gave away all of the money in her checking account. And once it was gone, there was no way to help her or recover the money.”

This Texas woman’s daughter, who wrote to me, said one store employee warned her mother that she was probably being scammed.

“In the defense of the stores, GameStop tried to talk her out of purchasing the gift cards,” the daughter said. “They knew it seemed sketchy. I guess in a perfect world they would have called the police before running the transaction, but they did try. Target was helpful in trying to gather information after the fact, and we appreciated that too.”

“Evil” is all I can think of to describe the people behind this particular scam. It’s especially heinous when you consider that many of the victims are retirees on fixed incomes.

“I wish that we would have known about the scam ahead of time, so we could have talked about it with her and warned her,” the daughter said. “My mother never could have even imagined that someone would impersonate a government employee.”

Related video: How to avoid Social Security scams (provided by NBC News)

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UP NEXT

You’ve probably gotten a Social Security scam call. I’ve received many on my home and cellular phones. The Federal Trade Commission said there’s been a significant surge in scams in which impostors claim they are calling on behalf of a government agency.

“Pretending to be the government may be scammers’ favorite ruse,” the FTC said in a blog post about top impostor scams. “Government impersonators can create a sense of urgent fear, telling you to send money right away or provide your social security number to avoid arrest or some other trouble.”

Since 2014, the FTC has received almost 1.3 million reports about government impostors, The complaints far surpass any other type of fraud reported in the same time frame, the agency said.

“Many people have received a call or voicemail from someone warning them that their Social Security number or benefits are suspended due to suspicious activity,” Darlynda Bogle, assistant deputy commissioner for the Social Security Administration (SSA), wrote in a recent blog post. “It’s an alarming scam and one we must help people identify so that they do not become the next victim.”

This is a seriously troubling trend, and we all have to get the word out about this scam, Bogle said. She shared the following tips from SSA:

  • Don’t answer calls from numbers you don’t recognize.
  • Never give out personal information such as your account numbers, passwords, Social Security number, mother’s maiden name or other identifying information if a call seems suspicious.
  • Government employees will not threaten to take away benefits or ask for money or personal information to protect your Social Security card or benefits.
  • If you receive a call from someone asking for your Social Security number, bank account number or credit card information, don’t engage this caller. Instead, hang up and report that information to SSA’s Office of the Inspector General via its online fraud-reporting form.

You can also report government impostor scams to the FTC at FTC.gov/complaint. For more information about other scams, go to ftc.gov/imposters.

Here’s how you can help your friends and family members:

  • Every time you read about this scam, share the article on your social media accounts.
  • Next time you attend a community, religious or church event, ask organizers if you can make a public service announcement about this scam at the beginning or end of the meeting.
  • If you have elderly parents, put a note next to their phones to remind them about the scammer techniques. Here’s a link to a free one-page information sheet in English and Spanish about Social Security scams. Print it out and post it.
  • Before my grandmother passed away, we had an agreement that she wouldn’t respond to an unsolicited telephone call without consulting me first. And she did just that.
  • Tell folks not to trust caller ID. The crooks can make a call look as if it’s coming from a government office.
  • If you’re shopping or work for a retailer and see someone buying gift cards in huge amounts, ask some questions. You might say something like, “I don’t mean to get into your business, but there are scams out there involving gift cards. Just want to make sure you aren’t being victimized.”

“I consider myself pretty savvy, but I admit I did get fearful when a robocall reported my Social Security number had been hacked,” a reader wrote. “I didn't fall for the scam after I collected my breath, but these kinds of calls can be scary.”

It’s become unsafe even to answer your phone. People, please be careful out there.

Read more:

Your Thoughts

The more we share about these scams, the more people become aware. So have you fallen victim to an impostor scam? Send your comments to colorofmoney@washpost.com. In the subject line put “Social Security Scam.”

Retirement Rants and Raves

I’m interested in your experiences or concerns about retirement or aging. What do you like about retirement? What came as a surprise?  If you haven’t retired yet, what concerns you financially?

You can rant or rave. This space is yours. It’s a chance for you to express what’s on your mind. Send your comments to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Please include your name, city and state. In the subject line put “Retirement Rants and Raves.”

In last week’s newsletter, I answered a question from a reader who was trying to get a young co-worker to sign up for their workplace retirement plan. The discussion turned into a lively debate about the appropriateness of the mentor’s actions. 

I asked millennials if they get annoyed when older adults discuss the need to save for retirement.

“I get QUITE annoyed when older people talk to me about investing,” wrote Leonard, a 25-year-old living in the District. “Here’s the thing. Millennials don’t want to NOT save and invest. The reality is that we need our money and every cent of it, especially for people like me who lived in San Francisco and now Washington. The ‘just put $10 away every month’ approach just seems so minuscule that it’s not even worth investing that much. So, to be honest I would rather not invest ANYTHING and get all my money than invest just $10 every month and watch it amount to more or less nothing a few months from now.”

Having said that, Leonard admitted that he was listening.

“I am fully invested to get the 401 (k) match at my job now,” he said. “And that’s because 1.) People have talked my ear off about doing it and 2.) I got a significant raise and 3.) My older self will definitely thank me later.” 

“When I was the age of today’s millennials, an older colleague at work gave me the same advice about buying into the company retirement plan,” one reader wrote. “What he didn’t know was that I was deeply in debt for college. The school loan interest rate was much higher than the company plan was making, at the time. Sure, [with returns] I would have gotten more in the long run, but my first priority was to get out from under those loans. Once I did, I started putting money into my retirement, and I’m now right on track.” 

Another reader wrote: “I am not annoyed when older adults try to talk to me about the need to save for retirement. Rather, I appreciate their taking the time to share their experiences and insights. I AM annoyed, however, when older adults blurt out things like, ‘Why aren’t millennials buying homes?’” 

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