Social Security Scams, Government Impostors, and the “Four P’s” of Scams
Scamming is a multi-billion-dollar industry. And scammers are creative and always coming up with new techniques. This week is National Consumer Protection Week, which uses education and awareness to stop scams. But Slam the Scam Day, one particular day of National Consumer Protection Week, focuses specifically on government impostor scams and similar social security scams.
See The 4 P’s of Scams with Anthony “AJ” Monaco for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.
Anthony “AJ” Monaco is the Special Agent in Charge of the Major Case Unit at the Social Security Administration Office of the Inspector General. His team of attorneys, agents, and analysts investigate major fraud related to the Social Security Administration (SSA). One of the types of fraud AJ works on is government impostor scams. You’ve probably heard of government impostor scams in the form of IRS scams, where someone pretends to be from the IRS to scam you. The social security scam version is similar – the scammer pretends to be part of the SSA to trick you into giving them your money or information.
A Path Into Investigating Scams
AJ was a Marine for almost a decade. When he left the Marines in 2000, he wanted to be a prosecutor. So he worked to set himself up to become a prosecutor. He went to law school, did an internship with the US Attorney’s office, and got a job offer. But while he was doing his internship, he started working with agents. It occurred to AJ that he could do that, too.
Prosecutors do hard work and AJ is deeply appreciative of everything they do. But he’s always had a preference for action and being in the field or on the street. Agents and prosecutors get paid about the same, and going out and actually arresting the bad guys sounded like a much better fit for him. So AJ became a Secret Service agent. The Secret Service has a dual mission – they both protect and investigate, and they’re leaders in financial fraud investigation. That’s how AJ got his start investigating fraud.
Social Security Scams and Impostor Fraud
“Impostor fraud” is a broad term that covers any fraud or scam where the scammer pretends to be someone official. There has always been impostor fraud, and it takes many different forms. We all joke about Nigerian Prince scams, and it’s good that we can joke about it. But the scammers are good at social engineering us into new scams.
Government impostor fraud, where the scammer pretends to be a government official or someone working for the government, took off around 2013. The big one at that time were IRS scams. A lot of people in the United States pay taxes, and by pretending to be the IRS, a large percentage of the population were potential victims.
But in 2018, government impostor fraud changed tactics. Social security scams became the next big thing. The SSA provides retirement benefits and disability benefits, and there are more people receiving social security benefits than people who pay taxes. The SSA gives out over a trillion dollars per year. That’s a much larger pool of potential victims. Social security scams are now a large portion of government impostor fraud. And they’re particularly perilous scams, as people receiving social security benefits often can’t afford to lose money to a social security scam.
Even if you hit a fraction of [Social Security recipients] … your scam is going to work a much greater percentage of the time.Anthony “AJ” Monaco
How Social Security Scams Work
A social security scam starts with an initial contact. You’ll get a call, an email, a text message, or even a physical letter claiming to be from the SSA. They say there’s a problem with your Social Security number. That’s an instant reason to worry. Nobody wants that to happen. It’s the same tactic that Amazon scams use – they contact you with an immediate and urgent problem, and nobody wants that.
With social security scams, they may tell you that your Social Security number is associated with drug or illegal activity, or something else bad has happened. But you can fix it if you follow the steps they give you and do it immediately. Whatever else these steps involve, they always require moving money somehow, often with gift cards or wire transfers. They want you to move your money to other accounts for safekeeping while they fix the problems. The accounts you put your money in are run by scammers. Your money goes from your account straight to the criminals.
Scammers are clever and their scams evolve, too. As the government attempts to combat inflation, Social Security recipients have received automatic cost of living increases. The scammers know that not everyone realizes those increases are automatic. They have been reaching out to people with a new social security scam asking them to apply for a cost of living increase to their benefits. They are even sending their scams through physical mail now. After so many scam prevention efforts telling people that the government will never call you, scammers have listened. They may still call you, but they’ll also send you official-looking letters.
Beware the Badge
AJ has had scammers copy his LinkedIn profile and use his name to pose as a federal law enforcement official. These scammers are getting very sophisticated at convincing people they’re really with the government. One new technique they’re using to gain trust and credibility is sending you their credentials. They send you a text or an email showing a very official-looking badge or credential. These fake credentials are created in tools like Photoshop, and they can be done very well and look genuine. It’s easy to assume they’re a real agent because it looks like they have a real badge.
There’s just one small problem: Federal law enforcement officials are not allowed to send their credentials through text or email. If someone is sending you images of badges or credentials, they’re nt a real agent. You’re dealing with a social security scam or another kind of government impostor scam.
If you’re not used to looking at federal badges and federal credentials, you might think that some of these things are real. … In federal law enforcement, not only do we not do that, we’re not allowed to present our credentials to you by text or email.Anthony “AJ” Monaco
Social Security Scams and Toll-Free Numbers
Scam alerts have been saying for ages that the IRS, the SSA, or any other government agency will not call you. They will send a letter. Scammers know this, and they’ve started sending letters. But it’s hard to run a social security scam – or any kind of scam – with just a letter. They need to get in contact with you. So the letters include a toll-free number for you to call.
Letters are very hard for law enforcement to track. But the government has a way to track toll-free numbers. All they have to do is shut down that number and it’s game over for that particular scam. If you encounter a social security scam, you can report it at ssa.gov/scam. If you’re not sure it’s a scam, you can Google the number and see what results come up. All phone numbers for the SSA are publicly available. If you Google the number and it comes up with other results, report it.
AJ recommends doing that with everything. If you got a text from your bank, Google the number to see if it’s really your bank or if it’s a scam text. If you get a call from your utility company, Google the number to make sure it’s not a utility scam. Scammers are everywhere, and we do ourselves a disservice if we underestimate them. Get in a mindset of doing your own research to verify what’s real.
The mindset is more important … back out, do your own research, don’t accept anything on faith. It’s unfortunate that it has to be that way, but that’s the mindset you have to adopt.Anthony “AJ” Monaco
Identify Fraudulent Documents
An important step in spotting and avoiding social security scams is telling official letters from clever fakes. But AJ hasn’t yet seen a scam letter that looks genuine. There are a few fundamental things that give away the fakes.
One giveaway is the agencies involved. If you grew up in the US, you would know that the Texas Attorney General has nothing to do with the Social Security Administration. But many scammers are from overseas and don’t understand how the system works or how the federal and state governments work together. If you understand the basic outline of how government works, you can spot where a fake letter’s claims don’t make sense.
Second is syntax and structure. Overseas scammers may be able to speak colloquial English very well, but they don’t often have a grasp of official government language. If you read a fake letter, the mistakes will be obvious. It will be idiomatic or colloquial, or have simple grammar and syntax mistakes that would have been caught in a real government agency.
You don’t need to be able to recognize official seals to identify these mistakes. If you can recognize that the letter is a scam and stop it at that step, you’re going to be great. But once social security scams get you in, they’re very persuasive.
The scamming numbers, particularly for SSA and government impostors, are going down, but once they do get in, the immediate loss is going up.Anthony “AJ” Monaco
On the whole, we are getting better at spotting the scams at the very first step. But once a scam gets a hold on us, we tend to lose a lot. AJ and his team want to increase public awareness because scams don’t succeed if they don’t get past that first step.
The Four P’s of Scams
AJ calls these the “Phoney Phundamentals.” Every scam, from social security scams to romance scams to Amazon or lottery scams, uses these four elements to run their scam.
Pretend: The scammer pretends to be someone else. In the case of a social security scam, they likely pretend to be an official with the SSA. But they could pretend to be from the IRS, Amazon, your utility company, or anything else.
Problem or Prize: Which form this takes depends on the type of scam. With social security scams, IRS scams, and Amazon scams, it tends to be a problem. Your social security number is associated with illegal activity, or you owe back taxes, or your Amazon account has been locked. With romance scams, lottery scams, and the classic 419 scam, there’s some kind of prize available for you to claim.
Pressure: This is the key element of any scam. It’s the hard sell, the steps you have to take to solve the problem, or the things you have to do to claim the prize. This is where the scammer pressures you into doing what they want.
If you don’t recognize anything else in the P’s, recognize the third step, Pressure.Anthony “AJ” Monaco
Pay: In this final step, the scammer gets you to pay them in some way. The more well-known ways scammers want you to pay are with gift cards, wire transfers, and cryptocurrency. But they also use more creative ways like cashier’s checks, peer-to-peer payment apps like PayPal, Zelle, and Venmo, and even the old fashioned method of leaving cash in a box somewhere. Even if they’re pretending to be from the government, they won’t ask for payment in a way the government would accept.
The Third P: Pressure
Pressure is the most important step to recognize. If you can spot when someone is trying to put pressure on you, you have a good chance at avoiding social security scams and any other kind of scam. The most common way for scammers to pressure you is threats. Especially when they’re doing a social security scam or an IRS scam, they say that something bad is going to happen to you. They’ll threaten arrest, seizure of your bank accounts and assets, and all sorts of horrible stuff. They play on our natural fears. Nobody wants to be arrested or have their bank accounts seized by the government.
If you think about the system, though, that’s not going to happen. No federal or local agent is going to call you and threaten you with arrest. If they have probable cause, they’re just going to get an arrest warrant and come to your house. They won’t call you and give you steps to avoid getting arrested – it just doesn’t happen. If someone is calling you – or texting or emailing you – and threatening to arrest you, they’re a scammer.
How the Government Accepts Payment
There are only a few very specific ways the government accepts payment. Scammers want to get paid in specific ways, and they are ways the government does not accept payment.
The government does not accept gift cards. That’s a huge red flag. If someone from the SSA or the IRS asks you to pay in gift cards, hang up the phone. That’s a social security scam or an IRS scam. Another red flag is wire transfers. The government never asks to be paid by wire transfer. They also don’t accept internet-based payment apps like PayPal, and they don’t accept cryptocurrency. In the future paying the government with cryptocurrency may be an option, but it’s definitely not right now. AJ doesn’t even think the government accepts cash.
There are only two legitimate ways the government wants to get paid. One is with a personal check. The other is with pay.gov. Pay.gov is a vetted, encrypted service that you can find on every government website where you can pay. Anything else is likely a scam.
We might think that by now, nobody will fall for using gift cards to pay the government. But people still do. Once a scam gets past the first step, scammers are great at coming up with a ruse for why you should pay the government with gift cards. We’re all running at full speed all the time, and AJ recommends what he calls the “hesitation step.” Before taking action, hesitate. Take a good look at that email or text and ask what it really is you’re seeing. Are there any red flags to indicate that this is a social security scam and not the SSA emailing you? Once you slow down, it’s easier to spot scams.
Slam the Scam Day
After working with social security scams and other government impostor scams for a while, AJ realized that there’s no way to prosecute our way out of scams. Prosecution is an important component and it does work, but we need to do other things if we want to defeat the multi-billion-dollar scam industry.
In 2020 AJ and his public affairs team started National Slam the Scam Day. They blitzed social media, did a bunch of interviews, and appeared on podcasts to raise awareness. The goal isn’t just to reach potential victims, but anyone who might know a potential victim. Word of mouth works really well to pass this information along.
We want this to go the way of the Nigerian Prince – we want these things to be so obvious.Anthony “AJ” Monaco
AJ’s goal is for scams to be dead and gone. He and his team provide information and hopes that others pass it along. In 2020, the focus of National Slam the Scam Day was specifically on social security scams. Last year, they expanded to include other government impostor scams. They’ve worked with the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, nonprofits like the AARP and big box stores to get the word out. They’re blanketing the media with information about these scams.
In 2023, National Slam the Scam Day is March 9th. It’s also part of the FTC’s larger National Consumer Protection Week, which is a week-long effort to educate consumers about scams.
Learn more about National Slam the Scam Day at oig.ssa.gov. You can also learn more about the larger National Consumer Protection Week at consumer.ftc.gov.
- Easy Prey Podcast
- General Topics
- Home Computing
- IP Addresses
- Online Privacy
- Online Safety
Situational Awareness: Lessons from a Professional Mentalist
Many of us had a time when we were interested in magic tricks, or have seen a…[Read More]
Plenty of Fish Search: 5 Ways to Find Someone on POF
Plenty of Fish (POF) is a popular Canadian dating site. Until the last update, you could go…[Read More]
Cyberstalking and the Unexpected Toll of Cybercrime
When people talk about scams and cybercrime, it’s usually in terms of numbers. Statistics declare how many…[Read More]
eHarmony Search: How to Find Someone on eHarmony
eHarmony has become a popular dating website that people use to meet the person of their dreams….[Read More]
Leadership Changes Trigger Hacks, Due to Company Vulnerability.
Those who’ve worked in company headquarters have gone through regime changes, even sometimes with not just new...[Read More]
Social Security Scams, Government Impostors, and the “Four P’s” of Scams
Scamming is a multi-billion-dollar industry. And scammers are creative and always coming up with new techniques. This…[Read More]