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Imposter scams are on the rise and claiming more victims. Here's how to protect yourself

Con artists ripped off Americans to the tune of $667 million last year, according to the FTC. Be on the lookout for census imposter scams next.
Image: A woman uses her cell phone
The telephone is still the preferred method for imposters to reach their victims. Imposter scammers are willing to spend hours with their victims because the payoff is so big. lechatnoir / Getty Images

Con artists are professional liars. That’s how they steal your money and personal information.

Imposter scammers lie about who they are — they pretend to be someone you know and are likely to trust. They masquerade as a friend or family member, or someone associated with a well-known business or government agency.

The Federal Trade Commission received 647,000 complaints about imposter scams in 2019 — a 23 percent increase — making imposter scams the No. 1 type of fraud reported to the FTC Consumer Sentinel Network last year. The median loss was $700. Total losses topped $667 million.

“The imposter technique works because [the criminals] are trading on your trust,” said Monica Vaca, an associate director at the FTC. “A lot of people trust the government. They trust a well-known business. They don't expect to be scammed.”

Imposter fraud covers a number of different scams, including:

Nearly half (47 percent) of all Americans have been targeted by an imposter scam, according to a recent survey of more than 2,200 adults by AARP. Forty percent said they were contacted by a scammer who pretended to be with the government.

“Government imposter scams use fear to motivate a response,” said Doug Shadel, a state director in Washington with the AARP Fraud Watch Network. “They're not only pretending to be with a government agency, but they’re coming to get you. There's something wrong with your Social Security number or we’re the IRS and you owe back taxes. Fear is an increasingly common tactic because it gets people to act without thinking about it.”

The telephone is still the preferred method for imposters to reach their victims. Eight in ten (79 percent) of the adults surveyed by AARP said they were first targeted and/or victimized by an imposter scam via telephone.


Complaints to the FTC about government imposter scams have increased dramatically during the past year, making it the most common type of imposter fraud.

While some scammers still pretend to be with the IRS, most have switched to something new — pretending to be with the Social Security Administration.

Since everyone has a Social Security number, the opportunity to steal sensitive personal information and money is enormous.

Social Security imposters have two basic come-ons when they call:

  • Your account was suspended and the benefits stopped.
  • Your Social Security number has been linked to a crime.

“Get a call that says your Social Security number has been associated with criminal activity and that’s very scary, and sometimes people act on that fear,” Vaca told NBC News BETTER.


That’s what happened to Jim, a 77-year old retired school teacher in northeast Wisconsin. The caller claimed to be with the police department in El Paso, Texas.

He told Jim (who asked us not to use his last name) they found an abandoned car containing $233,000 worth of drugs and Jim’s Social Security number was somehow connected to it.

To save the money in his Social Security account and avoid being arrested and extradited to Texas, Jim was told to go to the store and buy gift cards. He was cautioned not to tell anyone about this, not even his wife.

At one point, a co-conspirator pretending to be an FBI agent got on the line. Jim googled the agent’s name and sure enough, he found it.

“It just seemed so real; the whole situation seemed so very real to me,” Jim told NBC News BETTER.

Jim went to two stores and bought Sephora, eBay and Google Play gift cards valued at $6,600. The crooks stayed on the phone with him the entire time.

Jim suspected something wasn’t right. He remembers sweating as he got ready to read the account numbers on the gift cards. But in the end, his fear got him to do as he was told.

“They had me scared to death,” Jim said. “They said I would spend at least 10 days incarcerated in El Paso, if I didn’t cooperate. I was really scared.”

From start to finish, the scammers had Jim on the phone for six straight hours.

Late that night, Jim decided to call his local police department. The officer who came to the house gave Jim the bad news that he’d been scammed.

Luckily, some of those gift cards were not scanned properly at one store and had not been activated. That may have saved Jim $1,200.

Jim is embarrassed about what happened, but he hopes others will learn from his experience.


Imposter scammers are willing to spend hours with their victims because the payoff is so big.

“They do not want that individual to get off the phone because the possibility of defrauding them goes down dramatically if they talk to family, friends or financial advisers to ask what's going on here,” said William Brown, unit chief of the FBI’s Economic Crimes Unit. “So it’s a full-court press, an urgent matter that has to be resolved immediately. There is no time to think about it. You cannot hang up this phone.”

Just remember, no government agency will ever call and demand money immediately. If you get a request like that, especially if it’s payment via gift card or wire transfer, hang up.

“If you fall victim to it, please come forward. You are not the only one,” Brown said. “Don't be embarrassed to report it to us because it helps us piece together a bigger picture and go after these fraudsters.”

You can file your complaint with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.


The 2020 Census begins this week and fraud fighters say it won’t be long until census imposters try to take advantage of that in order to steal personal information.

From March 12 — 20 the Census Bureau will mail detailed information to households across the country about how to respond to the 2020 Census online, by phone or by mail.

The Census Bureau has already issued a warning about avoiding possible fraud. The two key points:

  • The Census Bureau does not send unsolicited emails to request participation in the 2020 Census.
  • The Census Bureau will never ask for your Social Security number, bank account or credit card numbers, money or donations.

Protect yourself from scams

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