Dear Savvy Senior, I recently received a strange call from a Social Security employee. He told me my Social Security number had been suspended because it was involved in a crime, and that I needed to reactivate it and secure my bank funds by withdrawing them and putting them on gift cards. Is this a scam? -- Worried Rita
Yes. It's actually known as the "Social Security imposter scam" and it's becoming a widespread problem in the U.S. The Federal Trade Commission has received more than 76,000 reports about this growing scam in the past 12 months alone. With average losses of $1,500, this scam is quickly becoming one of fraudsters' favorite tricks.
The Social Security imposter scam usually begins with a consumer receiving a call from someone claiming to be with the Social Security Administration. The caller informs the victim that their Social Security number (SSN) has been suspended because it was stolen or has been involved in a crime.
The phone call may be a robocaller with a message to "press 1" to speak with a fake support representative who then claims to be able to help reactivate the consumer's SSN.
In a variation on this scam, the caller may also reach out to tell a victim that they qualify for an increase in benefits. All they need to do is provide the scammer with some information. Typically, these callers will ask their victims several questions to get personal information that they can then use to steal their identity or drain their bank accounts.
Because of the numerous data breaches, these scammers may have access to accurate personal information -- such as your SSN -- that they can use to build trust and appear legitimate. Regardless, before concluding the scam, fraudsters will almost always request payment to "unfreeze" the SSN or to process the increase in benefits. The scammer may request that they be paid via an unusual payment method such as by gift card (and giving the fraudster the gift card number), or some form of cryptocurrency like Bitcoin.
While the scam can be devastating, there are several steps you can take to prevent yourself, and your loved ones, from falling victim to this scam:
Don't trust your caller ID: Scammers can make it look as if the Social Security Administration is calling and even use the agency's real number. If you receive an unexpected call from Social Security, don't answer it. Instead, call Social Security's customer service number at 800-772-1213 to see if they were actually trying to contact you.
Remember, Social Security will never suspend your number or call and demand money: If anyone tells you something different, you're being scammed.
Don't give out personal information: Never give out your Social Security number, bank information or other personal details to an unknown caller. If you already did, visit IdentityTheft.gov/SSA to find out what steps you can take to protect your credit and your identity.
Don't trust the caller just because they may know some of your personal information: It's most likely a scam if the person on the other end asks to confirm your information.
Talk about the experience: Those who've been targeted should alert friends and neighbors about the call to spread information and report the scam to the FTC at FTC.gov/complaint.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book.