Phone, text or email messages asking for verification of Social Security information or threatening to suspend a Social Security number — often masquerading as from the Social Security Administration — are almost certainly a scam, officials say.
The Social Security scam has quickly become one of the most aggressive and successful scams in the U.S., leading to millions in losses every year, according to the FBI. The Internet Crime Complaint Center said that 13,873 people reported being victims of government impersonation scams in 2019, with losses totaling more than $124 million.
Local police say the calls and emails are being reportedin area towns in Rhode Island or Connecticut. The thieves use "spoofing" systems that allow the callers to mask their information, making the messages appear to be from government agencies.
Hopkinton Police Capt. Mark Carrier said he is not aware of any increase in the number of local victims, but warned that there has been an increase in such calls and messages. "They may say your number has been suspended, they might say you will be arrested — these guys will do anything to get information," he said.
The Hopkinton department frequently uses Facebook to report on the latest scam attempts. "Once you have lost that money, it is incredibly difficult for law enforcement to try and track the scammer down," he said.
Westerly Police Chief Shawn Lacey has said that the targets are usually seniors, but only sporadically has there been a victim.
On Tuesday, the FBI issued a warning, reporting that scammers were spoofing the FBI's phone number and telling people that they must pay to reinstate their Social Security numbers. "These calls are fraudulent; any legitimate law enforcement officer will not demand cash or gift cards from a member of the public," the FBI said.
On Jan. 8, the Office of the Inspector General for the Social Security Administration also issued a warning, saying it had received an alarming number of reports regarding emails with attached letters that use an official letterhead and government “jargon” to trick the recipients.
The press release stated that the Social Security Administration will never threaten arrest or other legal action and won't promise a benefit increase or other assistance in exchange for payment. Social Security also does not send official letters or reports containing personally identifiable information via email.
Carrier said, "If you have any concern the call or email might be fake, hang up and don't respond. If you are ever concerned that the request might be legitimate, pause and look up the number of the government office or law enforcement agency they claim to be. They will never be angry that you want to call them back."
Anyone who feels they were the victim of this or any other online scam should report the incident immediately using the IC3 website at www.ic3.gov. More information about government impersonation schemes and other online fraud schemes can be found at https://www.fbi.gov/scams-and-safety/common-fraud-schemes.
Another growing concern has been a rise in scams related to streaming services, local police said. In most cases, customers of Netflix or Hulu will receive an email that appears to be from the company, using an official letterhead.
The letter is actually a copy of one that the company might send, the police said, and may include a link asking you to re-verify payment information. Carrier warns that these emails often contain red flags: links to outside sites that do not use the company URLs or may be sent from emails other than the company's official extension.
Any unusual email extension or URL should be an immediate red flag, he said, and such emails should be discarded immediately.
"If you ever need to update payment information, the best advice is to go directly to the service's website yourself and sign in there," Carrier said. "It doesn't take any longer and it will go a long way to making sure you are able to keep your information safe."