Social Security phone scams on the rise

Tax season is a lucrative time for ID thieves

In the past week, I have received more than a dozen phony calls on my cell phone warning me about “suspicious activity” in my Social Security account and threatening to cut off my benefits if I don’t return the call. Luckily, I know they’re fake calls and I just hang up, but thousands of vulnerable Americans are lured in by these phishing expeditions.

The stakes are particularly high during tax-filing season. Social Security numbers are the key that allows hackers to claim tax refunds fraudulently before legitimate taxpayers have a chance to file their tax returns.

The inspector general of the Social Security Administration, Gail Ennis, warned in a new message to the public that telephone scammers are sending faked documents by email to convince victims to comply with their demands for Social Security numbers, bank account information or payment.  

“As we continue to increase public awareness of phone scams, criminals will come up with new ways to convince people of their legitimacy,” Ms. Ennis warned in a Social Security Matters blog posted Jan. 9. “This is the latest variation on Social Security phone scams, which continue to be widespread throughout the United States.”

The letters often use official letterhead and government jargon to convince victims they are legitimate, she wrote. A telltale sign is that many letters from scammers contain misspellings and grammatical errors.

Using robocalls or live callers, fraudsters pretend to be government employees and claim there is identity theft or other problems with someone’s Social Security number, account or benefits. They may threaten arrest or other legal action or offer to increase benefits, protect assets or resolve identify theft in exchange for payment. Individuals can learn more about the latest scams at www.oig.ssa.gov/scam and they are encouraged to report scams at www.oig.ssa.gov.

If there is ever a problem with your Social Security number or record, in most cases Social Security will mail you a letter. If you do need to submit payments to Social Security, the agency will send a letter with instructions and payment options.

While it may seem obvious, you should never pay a government fee or fine using retail gift cards, cash, internet currency, wire transfers or prepaid debit cards. The scammers ask for payment using these methods because such payments are very difficult to trace and recover.

Not only are ID thieves hoping to bully victims into turning over personal information and payments, they know Social Security numbers are potentially the key to securing a bigger payoff: your tax refund.

The Internal Revenue Service warns that you may not know you are the victim of identity theft until you receive a notification from the IRS about a possible issue with your return.

If you get a letter from the IRS inquiring about a suspicious tax return, respond immediately by calling the toll-free number provided in the letter and have a copy of your prior year’s tax return handy to verify your identity.

Once you verify your identity with the IRS, you can tell them whether you filed the return or not. If you did not file the return, it will be removed from your IRS records and you may be told you will need to file a paper return for the current filing season. If you did file the return, it will be released for processing and, barring other issues, your refund will be sent.

If you e-file your tax return and get a message telling you that a dependent on your return has been claimed on another tax return or their own, you’ll need to find out why someone else claimed your dependent. Learn  more at What to Do When Someone Fraudulently Claims Your Dependent.

Or you might find that you can’t e-file your tax return because of a duplicate Social Security number. If your e-filed return is rejected, complete IRS Form 14039, the Identity Theft Affidavit. Print the form, attach it to your return and mail your return according to instructions.

Other causes for concern: You get an IRS notice that an online account has been created in your name; you get an IRS notice that your existing online account has been accessed or disabled when you haven’t taken any action; or IRS records indicate you received wages or other income from an employer you didn’t work for.

For more information on how the IRS can help you, see Identity Theft Victim Assistance: How It Works.

It’s just another reminder that it is more important than ever to protect your Social Security number. It is the Rosetta Stone of your personal and financial information, and crooks are anxious to get their hands on it.

[More: It’s do-over season for Medicare Advantage plans]

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Inspiring financial literacy, Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz follows her father's footsteps to bring investing to the masses.

Social Security phone scams on the rise

Social Security phone scams on the rise

Tax season is a lucrative time for ID thieves

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