The most insidious con jobs are the ones that are easy to believe. Scammers who prey on innocent people invent all sorts of fabulous lies to separate people from their hard-earned cash, and they're getting more creative all the time.
This month, the Federal Trade Commission is raising the alarm about a new and rotten phone scam that claims your Social Security number has been compromised.
It's a twist that combines classic phony calls from the IRS or other government agencies with our paranoia about identity theft: scam callers are claiming to be law enforcement agents, and telling victims their personal identification number has surfaced in a criminal case involving illegal drugs or money laundering.
The fraudsters tell their unsuspecting victims that their Social Security number has been "suspended" because of the criminal link. They even appear to call from the Social Security Administration's real phone number (1-800-772-1213).
But the FTC warns that these calls are not coming from a real government department, and that con men are "spoofing" the administration's phone number to confuse victims.
Stories from people caught by the scam also describe convincing callers who list their "badge numbers" and "case numbers" to gain the confidence of their mark.
The aim of the scam is to eventually ask the victim to reveal their SS number, at which point they have actually had their identity stolen, just not in the way they believed. Then, the fraudsters can use the number to file fake tax returns or open credit cards in your name.
Be aware that even giving away just the last four digits of your SS number could help a scammer steal your identity.
The FTC says over 35,000 people have already been scammed out of more than $10 million by con men using this scheme.
The SSA says they will never call to ask for your SS number, to pay for anything, or to threaten to cut off your benefits. If you're still convinced that your call from the SSA might be legit, hang up and call the administration's toll free number: 1-800-772-1213. Don't reveal any personal information until they verify the request.
While seniors are vulnerable to the scam, because they fear losing their SS benefits, fraud experts warn that people of all ages are being targeted.
You can report attempted fraud to the Social Security at their hotline: 800-269-0271.
Criminals trying to scam you are always looking for new ways to lie and deceive, but there are steps you can take to protect yourself.
- Beware of picking up the phone for numbers you do not recognize, and remember that scammers can easily hide their real phone number by "spoofing" the number of one of your neighbors, or a government agency.
- Join the FTC's national Do Not Call registry to limit the number of robocalls and scam calls you receive.
- Do not wire money, send cash, or buy a gift card for anyone who calls you over the phone.
- Do not respond in any way to robocalls or scam calls (not even to cuss out the person who called you) because this could actually increase the number of calls targeting you. Instead, block numbers that call you repeatedly. [Here are guides to blocking numbers on an iPhone or Android device.]