When Social Security Calls: Hang Up the Phone

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Seniors, too often the targets of cyber-savvy or fast-talking scammers, are again being singled out — this time by admittedly ingenious “spoofers” masquerading as representatives of the Social Security Administration (SSA).

Typically, the newest spoofing scam works like this: Aware that most people now screen their phone calls by checking the caller’s number before they pick up, the scammers have found a way to display the SSA’s well-known national customer service phone number — 1-800-772-1213 — as their own caller ID. Duped into believing it’s an official call from government representatives, most people answer.

The masquerading scammer will then claim to need the person’s Social Security Number, bank account numbers, and other personal information to “complete the individual’s file” or for some other official-sounding reason. Sometimes the scammer will mention the added enticement that the information is essential so that benefits can be increased. And sometimes there’s an added threat that benefits will be cut if the information isn’t given or confirmed.

The scam is so rampant that Gale Stallworth Stone, acting inspector general of Social Security, recently put out a nationwide warning alerting people about it, along with a vow to redouble efforts to clamp down on the information thieves responsible for them.

“This caller-ID spoofing schemes exploits SSA’s trusted reputation, and it shows that scammers will try anything to mislead and harm innocent people,” Stone says. “I encourage everyone to remain watchful of these schemes and to alert family members and friends or their prevalence.”

How to Spot Spoofers

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), also interested in tracking down and stopping the scammers, offers practical information and advice to consumers about the spoofing scheme.

SSA will not threaten you. FTC officials assure that: “Real SSA employees will never threaten you to get personal information. They also won’t promise to increase your benefits in exchange for information. If they do, it’s a scam.”

You sometimes also hear that the SSA never contacts consumers directly, though this is not true. In rare circumstances, the agency does call back those who have left questions with it, and sometimes may even ask to have individuals verify information. It’s the requests for personal information, threats, and promises of bigger benefits that are the tip-offs that you’re talking to a phony phoner.

If you have any doubt, hang up and call SSA directly. When you’re the one dialing 1-800-772-1213, you know you’re getting the real deal. If there’s truly a question about your record or account, an agent there should be able to help rectify it. Just know that you can’t always trust the number you see on caller ID.

Stopping Spoofing

In addition to being skeptical about unsolicited phone calls and getting smarter about spotting the signposts of a spoofer, there are several proactive steps to take if you suspect you’ve received a scam call and to stop them and other unwanted calls in the future.

Report the call. If you get what you believe is a spoofed call — especially if the caller asks directly for your Social Security Number — report it at once to authorities. Complaints may be filed with the:

  • SSA’s Office of the Inspector General, either by phone at 1-800-269-0271 and 1-886-501-0271 (TTY) or through an online report, and
  • FTC’s Complaint Assistant online.

Block future calls. If you know the true phone number of an unwanted caller, you should also know that most phone features or carriers offer a way to block calls from a particular number, though the procedure for doing likely depends on the particular type of phone or carrier you have. A good starting point is to find out whether your phone has any blocking features built in. You might also check with your carrier to see whether it offers blocking services.

You might also download one of the call-blocking apps available; some are free, others come with a monthly charge. Most apps will either stop calls completely, or cause them to ring silently or go directly to your voicemail.

The Federal Communication Commission maintains a list of Web resources for blocking robocalls, which are calls that use computerized autodialers, usually to deliver a prerecorded message — and usually annoying and unwanted.

Get more information. Nowhere is the adage “Forewarned is Forearmed” truer than when attempting to stop scammers, so it is best for consumers to arm themselves with some knowledge. The FCC offers comprehensive information on recognizing and combating government imposter scams at an online portal.

And finally, if you believe someone has stolen or misused your personal information, report it to the FCC as identify theft.

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