If you’re shopping at CVS tomorrow, you might hear the voice of Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul over the speaker system, warning Americans to beware of Social Security telephone and email scams. Screens behind customer service desks at Walmart will flash warnings. And Home Depot plans to push educational messages out through its social media channels. It’s the second annual “Slam the Scam” day, and it’s clearly much needed as Americans continue to fall victim to these scams at an alarming rate, with losses that can have a big impact on their lives.
In the last fiscal year, the Social Security Administration received more than 781,000 reports of Social Security-related telephone scams, with a total of $44.8 million reported lost. Victims who lost money reported an average loss of $5,800. Already in fiscal year 2021, which started October 1, the SSA has received nearly 300,000 complaints. “The problem—even with all of these efforts—is ongoing,” said Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul on a press call. “I’m deeply troubled that crooks are still deceiving Americans.”
Saul said that the latest ploy scammers are using to lend legitimacy to their calls is texting or emailing photographs of fabricated Social Security Administration and Office of the Inspector General badges to their intended victims. “The most important thing Social Security can do to combat scams is to continue educating the public,” Saul said.
Bringing in major retailers is one approach. “They obviously have large customer bases, and most carry gift cards in their stores,” said Inspector General Gail Ennis. “They realize some of their customers are buying cards there. They’re doing their best to help us combat this.” Scammers may ask victims for gift card numbers or bank account numbers over the phone, or to wire or mail cash.
“The scammers play on emotions, generally fear,” Saul said. In one case, an elderly Massachusetts woman was swindled out of $900,000. The fraudster, Hirenkumar Chaudhari, of Des Plaines, Illinois, pleaded guilty in January to one count of money laundering. He admitted in a plea agreement that he used a phony passport, false name and false address to open multiple U.S. bank accounts to receive money from victims of a Social Security telemarketing scheme, according to the Department of Justice. The scheme: stating that a victim’s identity had been stolen and that it was necessary to transfer money to various bank accounts, including those he had opened.
Scammers aren’t necessarily targeting the elderly, although the elderly may have more assets to unwittingly turn over. Scams calls go out all around the country by robo-dial. “It’s a volume business,” said Ennis.
Social Security will never:
- threaten you with benefit suspension, arrest, or other legal action unless you pay a fine or fee;
- promise a benefit increase or other assistance in exchange for payment;
- require payment by retail gift card, cash, wire transfer, internet currency, or prepaid debit card;
- demand secrecy from you in handling a Social Security-related problem; or
- send official letters or reports contenting personally identifiable information via email.
If you receive a letter, text, call or email that you believe to be suspicious, about an alleged problem with your Social Security number, account, or payments, hang up or do not respond. SSA encourages you to report Social Security scams using this online form on the Office of Inspector General’s scam awareness web page.