with the permission of NAELA News:
It may be summer, but the bad guys aren’t taking a vacation. The Acting Inspector General of Social Security, Gale Stallworth Stone, has issued a warning about an ongoing phone scam from thieves pretending to be from the Social Security Administration (SSA).
As part of the con, scammers try to convince you to give up personal information, like Social Security numbers and bank account numbers, over the phone. In another case, a caller claims to be from “SSA headquarters” and asks you to confirm personal information, such as an SSN, “new” Medicare number, address, and date of birth.
Many of these calls are “robocalls” or automated calls. In one robocall version of the scam, an automated recording declares that your Social Security number (SSN) “has been suspended for suspicion of illegal activity,” and advises to contact a specific phone number immediately. The robocall or caller may also warn that if you don’t call back, your assets or benefits will be frozen until your alleged issue is resolved.
Robocalls from scammers pretending to be from government agencies, like the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), continue to be problematic. They are cheap and easy and allows thieves to reach the largest number of victims possible.
You may recall that a “Robocall Strike Force” was established in 2016 to develop solutions to prevent, detect, and filter unwanted robocalls. The task force was made up of communications companies including cell and landline service providers, phone manufacturers, operating system (OS) developers and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Members included such communications leaders as Apple, Bandwidth, Comcast, Google, Microsoft, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon. However, two years later, there doesn’t seem to be any real progress made to stop robocalls.
According to an FCC spokesperson, “This industry-led effort produced two detailed reports to the Commission and which were instrumental in laying the groundwork for both on-going FCC policy-making efforts and industry technological work. FCC work that used the Strike Force’s recommendations includes work to reduce robocalls to reassigned numbers, the new FCC rules allowing phone companies to proactively block calls that are likely to be fraudulent, and FCC work to encourage implementation of call authentication. The Commission continues to consult with a wide variety of stakeholders though there are no current plans to formally reconvene this group. Rather, the Strike Force’s reports served their purpose by spurring and framing on-going Commission and industry action to help consumer avoid illegal robocalls.”
The FCC has issued some tips for dealing with robocalls. They include:
- If you answer the phone and the caller – or a recording – asks you to hit a button to stop getting the calls, you should just hang up. Scammers often use this trick to identify potential targets.
- Do not respond to any questions, especially those that can be answered with “Yes.” (You can find out more about the dangers of saying “yes” to robocalls here.)
- Talk to your phone company about call blocking tools they may have and check into apps that you can download to your mobile device to block unwanted calls.
- If you use robocall-blocking technology already, it often helps to let that company know which numbers are producing unwanted calls so they can help block those calls for you and others.
- To block telemarketing calls, register your number on the Do Not Call List.
(Click here for more from FCC on how to stop unwanted calls and texts.)
In the meantime, robocalls and phone calls made by scammers and thieves continue to be problematic. It’s especially confusing because the IRS has repeatedly advised taxpayers that they will not reach out by phone to resolve taxpayer issues. However, SSA employees do occasionally reach out by telephone for customer-service purposes. Further, the SSA says that in “a few limited special situations” which are “usually” already known to the citizen, an SSA employee may confirm personal information over the phone.
The Acting Inspector General of Social Security, Gale Stallworth Stone, warns folks to be cautious, and to avoid providing information such as your SSN or bank account numbers to unknown persons over the phone or internet unless you are certain of who is receiving it. “Be aware of suspicious calls from unknown sources, and when in doubt, contact the official entity to verify the legitimacy of the call,” Stone said. The SSA advises that if you receive a suspicious call from someone alleging to be from SSA, report that information to the OIG at 1.800.269.0271 or online.
I would go a step further: When in doubt, assume it’s a scam. If you’re not sure whether a call is legitimate, hang up and call back using an official number (don’t just use the caller ID number on your phone since those can be spoofed). To reach IRS, call 1.800.829.1040. To contact Social Security, call 1.800.772.1213.
If you know that it’s a scam, don’t engage with scammers or thieves, even if you want to tell them that you know it’s a scam, or you think that you can best them. Just hang up.
The IRS says that phone scams are still “a major threat to taxpayers.” In early 2018, phone scams held down the top spot on the IRS “Dirty Dozen” list of tax scams, and the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) reported they have become aware of over 12,716 victims who have collectively paid over $63 million as a result of phone scams since October 2013.
Remember that the IRS will never:
- Call to demand immediate payment over the phone, nor will the agency call about taxes owed without first having mailed you a bill.
- Threaten to immediately bring in local police or other law-enforcement groups to have you arrested for not paying.
- Demand that you pay taxes without giving you the opportunity to question or appeal the amount they say you owe.
- Require you to use a specific payment method for your taxes, such as a prepaid debit card, gift card or wire transfer.
- Ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone.
For more tips on protecting yourself from identity-theft-related tax fraud, click here.
(Author’s note: Updated to include a statement from the FCC.)