When the Social Security Administration calls, you pick up. But between October 2022 and June 2023, more than 55,000 people who answered calls from what they thought was the government agency said they were scammed.
Allegations of Social Security scams increased 61.7% in the quarters ending in June 2022 and June 2023, according to the Social Security Administration Office of the Inspector General.
The most common tactic is simple: Scammers say they're with the SSA and ask for personal information or money.
Imposter scams gain victims' trust by appropriating federal agencies' authority, says Stacey Wood, the Molly Mason Jones Chair in Psychology at Scripps College in Claremont, California. Some impersonate officials with fake IDs or use caller IDs that resemble government phone numbers.
So how do you know if a scammer's calling? If they tell you any of these four stories, it's time to hang up.
THE TACTIC: A scammer tells you that your Social Security number is suspended and they need your personal information to reactivate it.
WHY YOU SHOULD HANG UP: The government doesn't suspend Social Security numbers. Fraudsters are after personal information to steal your identity.
THE TACTIC: Perpetrators say your Social Security benefits are suspended. They'll ask for your Social Security number to verify your identity or say you need to pay a fee to have your benefits reinstated.
WHY YOU SHOULD HANG UP: Both scenarios are bogus - the SSA doesn't call and ask for your Social Security number or charge you to correct your benefits.
THE TACTIC: The caller says they can increase your benefits for a fee.
WHY YOU SHOULD HANG UP: This scam is commonly associated with the SSA's annual cost-of-living adjustment. Imposters offer to apply the COLA if you pay for the service. The truth? The SSA automatically applies COLA increases to benefits.
THE TACTIC: A scammer says you owe money for a penalty or as a correction for an overpayment. They may threaten to suspend your benefits or have you arrested if you don't pay immediately.
WHY YOU SHOULD HANG UP: Scammers often request payment through wire transfers, cryptocurrency, prepaid debit cards, gift cards or by mailing cash - none of which the Social Security Administration accepts. Scammers like these payment methods because they are practically impossible to trace.
The Administration for Community Living, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, announced in October that reports of scams targeting older adults were multiplying.
Because Social Security is a significant income stream for older adults, they are often more likely to answer calls or respond to letters out of fear of missing something important, Wood says.
Seniors also tend to be more lucrative targets. "They have more assets, so it's just a better use of scammers' time to exploit older people," Wood says.
You're likely being scammed if someone:
• Calls unexpectedly from the SSA. The SSA generally contacts beneficiaries through the mail, so be suspicious of any other contact method.
• Says there's a problem with your benefits. If there is an issue with your benefits, the SSA will send you a letter explaining how to correct it and whom to contact.
• Pressures you to respond immediately. The SSA gives you time to pay legitimate penalties and won't threaten to arrest or sue you if you wait to pay a debt.
• Requires you to pay to correct something. The SSA corrects issues with your benefits and applies increases for free.
• Never give out personal information. The SSA will never reach out to ask for sensitive information already on file.
• Know what's available online. Scammers can find your personal information online. If someone has this information, it doesn't mean they're from the SSA, says Krissten Petersmarck, a certified national Social Security advisor in Detroit.
• Investigate unexpected changes in your benefits. If your Social Security benefits decrease unexpectedly, ask why. "If things are changing and you're not aware of why, the first thing you need to do is contact the Social Security Administration," Petersmarck says.
• Check your credit history. Check your credit reports with the credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion) for signs of identity theft, Petersmarck says. You can request a free credit report every year at AnnualCreditReport.com.
This article was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet. Whitney Vandiver is a writer at NerdWallet.