If you receive a text, email or phone call purporting to be from the Social Security Administration, think twice before responding.
The people on the other end are likely fraudsters. And they're looking to catch individuals off guard and take advantage of their fears.
The November Retirement Confidence Index from SimplyWise, a technology company that helps people make Social Security claiming decisions, found 47% of Americans have been targeted by a Social Security scam in the past three months.
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The rate was even higher for seniors, 53% of whom were the target of those schemes in the past three months. What's more, 21% of seniors received more than three Social Security fraud attempts in that time.
The SSA last year started a new hotline to report scams. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice has filed civil actions against telecom companies that have knowingly passed along phony calls.
Yet those efforts aren't enough to keep up with the pace of bad actors. Text messages that use the same language as the scam robo-calls, as well as emails with documents that look legitimate, are popping up, the SSA said earlier this year.
"Despite all of our efforts, people will continue to fall victim to government imposters," Gail Ennis, inspector general at the SSA, said earlier this year. "As we take one scammer down, another will pop up in their place.
"They will find other ways to reach people and devise new techniques to deceive them."
There are certain hallmarks that can tip you off that the phone call is fraudulent.
The first clue is an unsolicited call. Social Security only makes personal calls in specific circumstances, Ennis said. You can expect a call from the agency if you've requested a call back or are undergoing a disability review, for example.
Fraudsters also may threaten to arrest you or take legal action if you don't pay them immediately. They may offer to increase your benefits for a fee. They may offer to protect you from identity theft by transferring your money to a bank account that is supposedly protected by the government.
The caller may ask you to refrain from telling your friends, family or bank about the call. And they may demand unconventional forms of payment, such as gift cards, wire transfers, cash or cryptocurrency like bitcoin.
There are things you can do to protect yourself and help put a stop to the perpetrators.
"If you get these calls, you hang up," said Andrew Saul, SSA commissioner. "Don't engage with the scammer. You can't beat them."
Also be wary of texts or email notifications that make similar demands.
Most important, never give out your Social Security number.
You also can report the fraudsters via the agency's Inspector General website. Alternatively, you can call the Fraud Hotline at 1-800-269-0271.
"Tell your friends and family about scam calls to protect them," Ennis said.