Get a call from the Social Security Administration? It's the latest government imposter scam

Con artists steal hundreds of millions of dollars a year pretending to be with the government. No matter how official they seem, no matter how scary the situation sounds — hang up.
Illustration of thief fishing in a phone.
So far this year, the FTC has received more than 200,000 complaints from people who were contacted by someone falsely claiming to be from the Social Security Administration, Internal Revenue Service or another government entity.Gabriel Alcala / for NBC News
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By Herb Weisbaum

Con artists tell lies — it’s how they make a living.

Calling people and pretending to be with a government agency — IRS, Social Security, ICE, DEA, or the local sheriff’s department — is a ruse that’s been lucrative for years. But these imposter scams have now hit an all-time high.

Here are a few of the lies these government imposters are telling. In each case, the goal is to steal your money and/or personal information:

  • We’re calling from the Social Security Administration because your account has been frozen or compromised.
  • This is the IRS calling and you owe us back taxes and are about to be sued or immediately arrested.
  • I’m with the FBI or your local police department and an arrest warrant has been issued because you failed to appear in court for jury duty.

“These people sound very convincing,” said Monica Vaca at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). “Their job is to make you feel fear, to make you feel panicked.”

Complaints about government imposter scams are skyrocketing, reaching a record high in May, according to a new FTC report:

  • Since 2014, consumers have complained about imposter scams far more than any other type of fraud. Reported losses in the last five years total more than $450 million dollars.
  • So far this year, the FTC has received more than 200,000 complaints from people who were contacted by someone falsely claiming to be from the Social Security Administration, Internal Revenue Service or another government entity.
  • In May alone, a record 46,600 complaints were filed.

It starts with a call out of the blue

The vast majority of imposter scams take place over the phone. Sometimes, they start with robocall, but not always. These phone bandits know how to high-pressure and bully people, sometimes threatening them with arrest.

“People are scared and they’re not thinking clearly, so they do what the crooks want in order to relieve the pressure,” said Steve Baker, international investigations specialist with the Better Business Bureau.

Julianne Stafford, who almost got taken by a government imposter, knows how terrifying these calls can be.

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“You're so scared in that moment,” said Stafford, a Massachusetts teacher. “They're saying you're going to go to federal prison. You're like, ‘Oh my God no. How do I stop this from happening? I will tell you everything.’ ”

Most of these calls come from telephone boiler rooms in India, Baker told NBC News BETTER. By spoofing caller ID, they can make the phone display the number of the government agency they’re pretending to be calling from. This hi-tech deception makes their lie seem legit.

Imposters are switching to Social Security scams

Scammers are always looking for something new and fresh. The FTC’s complaint database clearly shows them moving on from impersonating the IRS to pretending to be with Social Security or Medicare.

From January to May, there were 65,000 complaints about Social Security Administration imposter scams and 20,000 involving Health and Human Services/Medicare. IRS scams had dropped to 4,500.

Susan, who lives in Loris, South Carolina, lost her life savings, $14,000, to a Social Security scam just a few weeks ago. Still embarrassed that she fell for the scam, Susan asked that we not use her last name.

The caller said Susan’s name and Social Security number had been found during a drug raid in Texas.

“He said I was going to be charged with drug trafficking and money laundering and because of forfeiture laws, the DEA could seize my money, so I was freaking out,” Susan told NBC News BETTER.

She could help her safeguard her money, the fraudster said, if she withdrew all her savings and sent it to the agency for safekeeping, until the criminal investigation was over. Susan was in such a panic that she followed his instructions.

The imposter stayed on the phone with her for more than three hours as she went to the bank and then prepared the shipment, constantly reminding her not to talk to anyone about what she was doing.

“I just can’t believe I fell for this,” Susan told me. “I’m having a hard time dealing with it. I was hoping to retire this year, but now I have nothing.”

Susan shared her story with NBC News BETTER because she wants others to know how persuasive these phone bandits are; that they can get you to do things that in hindsight, don’t make sense.

How to protect yourself from phone scams

If someone calls and claims to be with a government agency, no matter how official they seem, no matter how scary the situation sounds — hang up. The longer you stay on the line, the more likely you are to become a victim.

“Government agencies, including Social Security, IRS, and Medicare, don’t first make contact over the phone,” said Amy Nofziger, director of the AARP Fraud Watch Network. “If there’s a problem with your account, they will contact you by U.S. mail. Likewise, they will never call and threaten you with a lawsuit or arrest, if you don’t make an immediate payment.”

Another red flag: Government agencies will never instruct you to make an immediate payment via wire transfer or gift card.

“Gift cards are now the favorite way these scammers are asking to be paid,” said John Breyault, who runs the National Consumers League’s Fraud.org website. “Government agencies don’t accept payment via iTunes or Google Play or any other gift card. That’s the sure sign of a scam.”

Don’t trust a caller just because they know some of your personal information, Breyault cautioned in a recent fraud alert. “Sadly, due to numerous data breaches, we have received reports that fraudsters are providing victims with their SSN to build trust,” he writes.

You can report the scam to the Federal Trade Commission or Fraud.org, which shares this information with more than 200 law enforcement agencies.

If you feel the need to talk to someone call your local Better Business Bureau or the AARP FraudWatch Network (877-908-3360). Or contact the agency that supposedly called you. Look up the number on your own, don’t trust your caller ID or the number the caller may have given you.

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