Some scams are easy to recognize. For example, you likely know that you couldn’t be the winner of an overseas lottery if you never entered one. You also likely know there’s no logical reason a Nigerian prince would ask you to accept millions of dollars on his behalf.
However, a call that supposedly is from a government agency can incite panic and an accompanying lack of judgment. After all, most older Americans do file tax returns and receive government-administered retirement benefits and medical insurance. Being told that you owe back taxes or are in danger of losing your benefits may cause even fairly logical people to respond out of pure fear.
And that’s exactly what the scammers want: to terrify you enough to give up crucial information. Government imposter scams quite literally bank on the fact that older adults make great potential victims. Generally speaking, retirees:
- Have good credit and retirement nest eggs
- Are likely receiving some form of government benefits
- Were raised to be polite rather than hang up on even an unwanted call
- May be experiencing cognitive issues due to illness or dementia or hearing loss that makes callers hard to understand
Scammers have no problem with taking vulnerable adults for every dime they own. Government (and business) impersonators stole $2 billion from U.S. citizens between 2017 and 2022, according to the Federal Trade Commission. The true number is likely higher because many victims don’t know how to report fraud or are too embarrassed to tell anyone.
Recently the FTC has asked the government to codify the notion that impersonation scams are a violation of the FTC Act and further proposed that the commission be allowed to fine or seek civil penalties against scammers in the future. Considering, though, that these schemes will continue to circulate, here’s what you need to know about government imposter scams.
Common government imposter scams
Tactics and topics vary, but all scammers want the same thing: to get paid. Sometimes that’s cash upfront, such as a wire transfer. Other times they’re fishing for the information they need to empty your bank account or commit identity theft.
But it’s all about the money. Here are some common government imposter scams:
Scammers kick into high gear during Medicare open enrollment, hoping to steal personal information. An impersonator might ask for your Medicare number, Social Security number, or even for credit card and bank information. The goal, of course, is to steal from you or commit identity theft.
Ignore any call or text from “Medicare” because Medicare doesn’t contact people out of the blue to offer help with open enrollment or provide any other service. Even if the caller ID says “Medicare,” it’s a scam.
Other thieves offer to send so-called “durable medical equipment,” such as crutches or splints and bill Medicare for their costs. To do so, of course, they just need your Medicare or Social Security number. Some of these fraudsters actually do send inferior-quality items, while billing Medicare for higher-end stuff. Some, however, never send a thing—they just file phony Medicare claims.
Social Security scams
Because so many older adults rely on Social Security benefits to get by, you can imagine how easy it would be to intimidate them. A common government imposter scam is a phone call saying that your Social Security number was temporarily suspended.
The caller then asks you to “confirm” the number so it can be reactivated or offers to give a new number for a fee. However, the Social Security Administration never blocks or suspends numbers.
Some scammers threaten to seize your bank account or to “help” you move the money where it will be safe. Others say that your benefits will increase once you pay an administrative fee or confirm your Social Security number, name and date of birth. However, they can use this information for identity theft and even change your direct deposit information so that they, not you, will get the benefits.
At times, the scammers use texts, e-mails and sometimes even mail to find new victims. No matter which communication form they choose, know this: The SSA almost never contacts citizens out of the blue, and a legitimate agent won’t ask you to verify your Social Security number. A real government employee also won’t threaten you with loss of benefits or ask for any form of payment.
Thieves often tell potential victims that they owe back taxes and threaten fines or jail time unless the (fake) debt is paid through a wire transfer, gift card or prepaid debit card purchase. Or they’ll say that your account needs verification and ask you to visit a website to do so. The scammer then uses the personally identifying information to steal from you.
The IRS almost never initiates contact via e-mail, text or phone. Instead, contact begins with a letter through the U.S. Postal Service. If someone gets in touch with you in any other way, it’s a scam.
Crooks have taken advantage of the pandemic by calling, texting and emailing to ask for personal and financial information or upfront fees in exchange for things such as fake testing kits, government grants, and products, services or benefit reviews from Medicare.
Signs of a government imposter scam
Scammers use a variety of stories to con people out of their money or personal information. However, all of the scams tend to have telltale signs:
- Incorrect spelling or grammar in a text or e-mail
- Request to “confirm” a Medicare or Social Security number
- Payment requested in cash, wire transfers, gift cards or cryptocurrency
- Extra payment requested for entitlements such as Medicare or Social Security
- Demands for bank account or credit card information, or Social Security, Medicare or driver’s license numbers
Beware of calls, emails, text messages and letters with any of these red flags.
How to avoid government imposter scams
Never answer calls from unknown numbers. Let voicemail or the answering machine pick up because most crooks won’t leave a message. They want to connect with their victims in real time.
Note: Some scammers use technology to make it appear the call is coming from a government agency. Even so, don’t answer; if the call is legitimate, the government representative will leave a message. However, don’t call back the number that is provided in the off chance that a scammer has left a message. Look up the number of the government agency that supposedly is calling and call that number.
Never click on an attachment or hyperlink found in an e-mail or text. The attachment could download a virus or malware on your device. And links could take you to fake websites that might request your personal or account information.
Don’t fall for intimidation tactics. The U.S. government doesn’t allow employees to bully citizens. Some fraudsters have gone so far as to threaten deportation if the victims didn’t pay. If someone really does owe taxes or need a new Social Security card, the government will reach out in a much less aggressive manner—and it would never ask for things like wire transfers or cryptocurrency payments.
What to do if you’re a victim of a government imposter scam?
The first thing you need to do is reduce the financial damage. It’s also vital to prevent identity theft and medical identity theft in the future.
Can you get any of your money back?
Maybe, maybe not. The Federal Trade Commission suggests these tactics:
Cash payments. If money was sent through the mail, get in touch with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and request an intercept of the envelope or package. If a private delivery service was used, contact the compnay to ask the same.
Credit or debit card payments. Contact the bank, credit union or card issuer to ask that the transaction be reversed.
Unauthorized bank transfer. If the scammer accessed a bank account, tell the bank that this wasn’t authorized and that you need that money back.
Money transfer app. Contact the company and ask for a reversal of payment; if the app is linked to a debit or credit card, report the fraud to the bank or credit card company and ask for the money back.
Wire transfer. Contact Western Union, MoneyGram or whatever company was used, inform them the transaction was fraudulent, and request that funds be returned. If the transfer was done through a bank, ask that the wire be reversed.
Gift card payments. Get in touch with the gift card issuer and state that it was part of a scam. Ask for a refund. (Be prepared to send screenshots of the card and the receipt.)
Cryptocurrency. These transactions generally aren’t reversible. But it’s worth asking the company used to send the payment if you can get the funds back on the grounds that the transaction was fraudulent.
Again, these tactics might not work. That shouldn’t keep you from trying.
Protect personally identifying information
If you revealed your Social Security number, immediately visit IdentityTheft.gov for step-by-step information on what to do next.
If a username and password were given out, immediately create a new strong password with a combination of upper- and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols. If the stolen password was used for more than one account, create new sign-ins on those accounts as well. Also, sign up for multi-factor authentication to make it even harder for hackers to access your accounts.
Protect debit and credit card information
Contact the bank or card issuer to close the account and file a fraud report. Consider a credit freeze, so that no one can open new credit lines in your name. Also, consider signing up for account, credit and identity monitoring through a service such as Carefull. Carefull will monitor your bank, credit card and investment accounts, credit reports and personal information and alert you if it spots anything unusual. Plus, it includes up to $1 million in identity theft insurance.
Stop remote access
Some scammers use malware to steal information. It’s essential to update a device’s security software and run a malware scan. If you granted someone remote access to your computer, disconnect from the Internet and follow these steps. If the thief has taken control of a mobile phone account, contact the service provider immediately.
Reporting government imposter scams
Don’t be embarrassed to admit that you’ve been scammed. It can happen to anyone, but no one deserves to be defrauded.
Report the incident to the Federal Trade Commission at ReportFraud.ftc.gov. It’s also a good idea to report it to local law enforcement and to get a copy of the incident report, which you might need to repair the damage if your identity is stolen.