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The Social Security Administration (SSA) first began issuing social security numbers in 1936. Since that year, more than 450 million social security numbers have been issued to people in the U.S.

Social security numbers are important identifiers for the population. They are used to verify identity, perform background checks, apply for credit, purchase a home, track earnings, pay taxes, determine benefits, and more.

Social security numbers are meant to be kept private, but people fall victim to social security scams and social security fraud every year.

In this article, we’ll help you understand the basics of social security fraud. We’ll share the most common types of social security scams to watch out for, give you tips on how to recognize and protect yourself from fraud and provide you with resources that you can turn to if you fall victim to social security fraud.

What is Social Security Fraud?

There are many different types of social security fraud that the Department of Justice investigates. This includes:

  • Identity theft using stolen social security numbers
  • Misuse of social security benefits
  • Providing false information on a claim
  • Concealing information or events for the purpose of financial gain
  • Phone and email scams relating to social security
  • Bribery of a Social Security Administration employee
  • Willful misuse of social security numbers

For this article, we will be focusing primarily on the type of fraud that occurs when a criminal steals and uses someone’s social security number.

Common Social Security Scams

Why do criminals want access to your social security number? One of the biggest reasons is so they can steal your identity, file false tax returns using your social security number, and collect a refund on the fake return they file. According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), this particular crime costs U.S. taxpayers as much as $380 million every year.

Criminals also use stolen social security numbers to open bank accounts, get loans, secure housing, or even apply for a job.

How do criminals get access to social security numbers? Here are some of the most common scams to watch out for:

Scam #1: The Phony Phone Call. For this scam, someone claiming to be an SSA employee calls you and tries to get you to provide them with your social security number. They may use spoofing technology to mask their phone number and make it look legitimate when you search for it online. Often these calls are threatening and prey on older individuals who may not understand what’s being asked of them and why.

Scam #2: The Mysterious Letter. For this scam, a criminal sends you a letter offering an extra benefits payment that you did not expect. To provide the extra payment, the letter will ask the recipient to provide their social security number and/or bank account number.

Scam #3: The Phishy Email. For this scam, a criminal will send an email that looks like it has been sent from the SSA. The email may even send recipients to a phony SSA website that looks exactly like the actual SSA website. Again, the goal is to get you to provide your full social security number.

Scam #4: The In-Person Visit. For this scam, a criminal claiming to be an SSA employee may visit your house and ask you questions in an attempt to get you to reveal your social security number.

While this list is not exhaustive, it should help you realize just how far criminals will go to get access to your social security number.

How to Recognize a Social Security Scam

How do you recognize the difference between a genuine interaction with the SSA and a phony interaction with a criminal? Keep the following in mind:

First, the Social Security Administration will never threaten you or demand immediate payment from you. They even say so on this page about social security scams on their website. If you are being threatened with legal action over the phone by someone who claims to work for the SSA, you are being scammed.

Second, the SSA will never ask you to make payments using retail gift cards, cash, or pre-paid cards. If someone asks you to do this, hang up and report the call as fraud by visiting this page from the Social Security Administration.

Finally, if an interaction, email, or letter seems sketchy, unprofessional, or just plain “off” to you, it’s probably an indication that a criminal is trying to get information from you.

Easy Ways Protect Yourself from Social Security Number Theft

How do you protect yourself from a criminal stealing your social security number and using it for their own financial gain? Keep the following tips in mind:

Tip #1: Keep your social security number private. Don’t share your SSN with someone unless you are confident they are a legitimate business or professional. The SSA will likely not ask for your full social security number because they already have it. Do not send your full SSN in an email. Only submit it on a website if you’re confident it’s secure and encrypted.

Tip #2: Watch out for the common scams criminals use to obtain your number. If an interaction seems bogus or fishy, do not give out your personal information until you can confirm the legitimacy of the request being made. If you’re not sure, contact the Social Security Administration by phone or email.

Tip #3: Shred documents that include your personal information. Do not simply throw away documents that contain your full SSN. Shred sensitive paperwork to prevent someone else from finding and using your number to commit fraud.

Tip #4: Only fill out online applications on a secure WIFi network. Do not provide your SSN on open or public WIFI networks available in coffee shops, libraries, and other public spaces.

What to Do if You Become a Victim of Social Security Fraud

If you become a victim of social security fraud, file a report with the FTC using this form. You can also report fraudulent activity to the SSA using this page.

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