Financial Planning

Scam Alert: Social Security Robocalls

The IRS scam appears to have some competition. Sadly, people are falling for it.

This morning, robocallers decided to spam one of your friendly MarketMinder editors, leaving her the following voicemail five times in four hours:

is to inform you that we just suspend your Social Security number because we found some suspicious activity. So if you want to know about this case just press one thank you. [three-second pause] This call is from the Department of Social Security Administration. The reason you have received this phone call from our department is to inform you that we just suspend your Social Security number because we found some suspicious activity. So if you want to know about this case just press one thank you.

Predictably, the entity leaving the message wasn’t a human, but a voice from text-to-speech software. Someone typed in a message, including grammatical errors, and then had a computer program morph it into an audio message, which they are now spamming across the US. When we Googled the voicemail, we saw numerous local news outlets reporting the scam over the weekend. The goal appears to be for you to press “one” and either give someone your Social Security number or buy a bunch of gift cards to pay them to clear up the problem. According to a late-December FTC blog post, 35,000 people reported falling for the scam last year and losing about $10 million collectively. That is small potatoes at this juncture, assuming the figure is accurate. But in an effort to preempt this snowballing and catching any of our readers, we figured it was worth a post.

There are a few ways to discern that this is a scam, much like the IRS robocall scam. The grammatical errors and robot voice are dead giveaways. So is the fact that the Social Security Administration won’t suspend your number, which is attached to you for life and a means of identification. They also won’t threaten to suspend your benefits. Nor will they tell you to send money (or gift cards). They will not call you and then ask for your Social Security number. “There is a problem with your Social Security number. Please give it to me,” makes about as much logical sense as the fire department calling you to say they saw on a real-time satellite map that your house is on fire and asking for your address so they can know where to send a truck.

When you get suspicious calls, there are a few steps you can take to protect yourself (beyond the obvious, “don’t answer” and “don’t press one”).

One: If someone calls you claiming they are from a government agency, don’t indulge them in a conversation. Tell them you need to verify the legitimacy and will call them back. They will pressure you to stay on the line—just hang up on them.

Two: Do an Internet search to see if anyone has reported similar calls. Most of the time, you will find you are among thousands to receive them, and the FTC will have already issued a warning. (This same tactic works to identify fraudulent emails. Just Google the exact text.)

Three: On the outside chance no evidence of this scam turns up on the Internet, don’t call back the number that called you. They likely used a program to have a fake number show up in your caller ID, a trick known as “spoofing.” Instead, look up the relevant department’s website, find their actual phone number, give them a buzz, sit through 90 minutes of being on hold until you can talk to an actual person, and explain to them what happened. They will tell you whether there is an actual problem or the call was just people up to no good. We know this sounds like a pain. But avoiding theft of your hard-earned money—or identity—is worth an hour or so of hold music.

Four: Never ever ever ever ever give a caller your Social Security number, bank account number, password to email or other account, wire transfer instructions or any other sensitive information.

Five: Never send money or gift cards to callers. Gift cards are rapidly becoming scammers’ preferred form of payment since they are largely untraceable. (They are also way easier to buy than bitcoin, another favorite of criminals because they are hard to trace.) No legitimate outfit will ever demand a gift card as payment.

Stay safe out there, and remember, constant vigilance!

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*The content contained in this article represents only the opinions and viewpoints of the Fisher Investments editorial staff.