Fraud alert: This is (not) the government calling


senior man answering a scam phone call

Think you are too smart to fall for phone scams? Not so fast. In 2018, American consumers lost more than $488 million to a type of fraud that the Federal Trade Commission (FRC) calls “imposter scams.”

One particularly common and effective type of imposter scam is the fraudster posing as a government official. In fact, the FTC says that fake government calls now top the list of imposter scams. We’ve frequently posted about IRS tax season scams. In the Washington Post, Michelle Singletary warns that the latest hoax calls  tell you that your Social Security number is being suspended. There re several variations to the scam, often elaborate stories about how your Social Security number turned up in crimes.  The end goal is to either get you to reveal your number or to pay a fee to “reinstate it.” Some scenarios even threaten arrest. She quotes an FTC official:

“If you get a call out of the blue from someone claiming to be from a government agency like the Social Security Administration or IRS asking you for personal information or money, it’s a scam,” said Andrew Smith, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

Check out the tips and advice she offers for how to spot and avoid this scam. And here’s an FTC infographic for a typical telephone IRS scam – it’s a pattern that is common for SS# and other governmental scams, too.

IRS phone scam infographic

Welcome to prime tax scam season!


illustration of online crookWhen it comes to ID theft, you really can’t afford to relax – the criminals who are out to get you certainly aren’t slacking off: In 2014, there was a new identity fraud victim every two seconds. In the same year, $16 billion was stolen from 12.7 million U.S. consumers. (See III on the Scope of Identity Theft).

Between January and April, IRS impersonators and tax scammers are out in full force. Scams often happen via aggressive phone calls, email phishing and spam, phony online websites, or even via social media. Some of the common scam pitches to watch out for:

  • Get a bigger return and get it faster … just click or sign here
  • You need to update your online file .. give us your Social Security number
  • This is the IRS. You owe big bucks in back taxes – pay now or we’ll arrest you
  • You owe a small amount in taxes or fees, here’s a quick way to pay that online so you don’t hold up your refund
  • Please make a tax-free donation to <> charity or <> political fund.

Two particularly common types of fraud are IRS Impersonators – usually threats by phone – and tax preparer scams. You can read about the most common types of tax fraud from last year’s IRS Dirty Dozen.

Consumer Reports shares some good ideas to foil the scammers. We like this one:

Thieves usually claim tax refunds by filing taxes before their victims do. So another way to protect yourself is to file long before the tax deadline, which is Monday, April 18, this year (April 19 in Maine and Massachusetts).

Here are some other tips to avoid becoming an ID-theft victim:

  • Don’t trust the number that shows up on your caller ID or email identification. These can be spoofed. Don’t click on any links or give out any info. Instead, go directly to the website or call the organization yourself to make payments or donations.
  • Don’t give out credit cards, dates of birth, social security numbers or any other sensitive information to callers you do not know. Never send that information by email, which is insecure.
  • Create secure passwords. Use different passwords for any accounts involving sensitive information or payments. That might seem like a hassle, but this small inconvenience pales in comparison to the troubles you will have if someone steals your ID.
  • Review your credit card and bank statements regularly. Check free credit reports annually with this authorized site.
  • Avoid making financial transactions over insecure public wifi networks.
  • Ensure that your browser is up to date and security patches applied.
  • Keep an eye out for elderly relatives or friends – the elderly are often specifically targeted for fraud.