We’ve all heard about impostor phone scams, but now consumer advocates are warning people to be alert about a new twist on this swindle called “Social Security imposter scam.” Essentially, this is where someone — a person, or a computer — calls you up and pretends to be someone they’re not, in order to extract information and money from you.

The fraudsters can be smart and may have already got personal information about you, including your social security number. This can happen through data breaches and allow the scammer to seem more legitimate and trustworthy. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), 76,000 people have filed complaints about social security impostors in the last twelve months and reported that $19 million had been lost. So, how do social security imposter scams work and how can we keep ourselves safe from them?

Here’s how it happens

You get a call: The call may say that your social security number has been suspended because of suspicious activity or because it has been used in a crime. Some victims are reported to have been told that their social security number has been suspended due to a suspicion of money laundering or terrorist activity. The call may be from a robocaller that has a prerecorded message telling you to follow instructions to speak to a “support representative” from the government to reactivate your social security number.

Not all scammers have your social security number before making the call and may ask you to confirm what your social security number is. Scammers can use technology to imitate your caller ID and make it look like the Social Security Administration is really calling. This is yet another technique that is used to make things seem legitimate and trustworthy.

Money

The scam is ultimately about swindling money from you. You may be asked to withdraw money from the bank or cash points or use a virtual currency like Bitcoin to pay them. The scammer may tell you that your bank account is about to be seized and then they’ll continue with how they can help you to keep it safe. This often involves putting money on gift cards and then giving them the codes — which, of course, means losing your money.

One victim told Fraud.org that after handing the gift card codes to the so-called “Social Security Office,” he was told that he would receive a refund equal to the amount he paid to unfreeze his account. Of course, the return never came, and he lost nearly $20,000.

How to stay safe

According to Fraud.org and the FTC, here are some things that are important to remember:

  • Don’t trust your phone’s caller ID.
  • Don’t give out personal information, including your social security number, over the phone.
  • Social Security will never call you and demand money. In fact, no government agency will ever require you to pay something using gift cards or Bitcoin.
  • Social Security will never suspend your number or contact you out of the blue.
  • If you have a question or concern, talk to the real Social Security Administration on 1-800-772-1213.

Don’t keep it to yourself. If you receive a call that you think is a scam, remember the above advice. This can be a very stressful experience, even if you don’t end up handing over any money, so talk to your family, friends, or neighbors about it.

Scammers have been known to tell people that their phones have been tapped and that they are not to call the police. Ignore them and report the scam to FTC at  ftc.gov/complaint and Fraud.org.