There’s an epidemic of scams across America, many of them trying to trick people with fake claims their Social Security number has been compromised.

Gail Ennis, the Social Security Administration’s inspector general, said that in 2018, her agency recorded 15,000 complaints about callers impersonating agency employee or alleging a problem with a Social Security number.

Last year, she said, the agency logged almost half a million complaints about the same scam. It’s just one of many ways that con artists cheat Americans out of their savings, officials said, but many follow the same pattern of a caller who manages to convince someone to hand over their money, the sort of thing that stripped Barbara Hinckley of Auburn of her retirement cash last summer.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, opened a hearing Wednesday on a scam centered on impersonation of Social Security staff. U.S. Senate Aging Committee photo

A Senate Aging Committee hearing in Washington on Wednesday, chaired by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, R-Maine, delved into the Social Security impersonation scam in a bid to educate people so they can avoid getting taken in.

Collins said at the hearing that a once-popular Internal Revenue Service scam has dwindled but one involving Social Security “began to take off” since 2017 to become “the number one reported scam last year.”

She said her  mother, who is 92, got five of the “ruthless” Social Security scam calls on her cellphone.

Justin Groshon, the manager of the Social Security office in Saco, told the committee that “every office in Maine has received calls and visitors reporting that people are impersonating Social Security employees.”

“To exacerbate the problem, fraudsters have ‘spoofed’ or masked their own telephone number with that of a field office’s general inquiry telephone number in an attempt to trick the public into thinking they are receiving a legitimate call from a Social Security office and representative,” Groshon said.

“Scammers are sophisticated,” Social Security Administration Commissioner Andrew Saul testified. “We want everyone to know that if they get a suspicious Social Security-related call, hang up and report it.”

Saul said everyone should know a few basics: “Do not trust caller ID, do not give your Social Security number or other personal information. Do not provide money. Our employees will never threaten or demand money from you.”

It’s advice that Utah grandmother Machel Andersen wishes she had taken.

Andersen told the panel that “international criminals used the Social Security scam to steal $150,000 from me and my husband, money we had worked our entire lives to save.”

It happened in a flash in early December, she said, when a caller caught her on a busy day and told her that her “Social Security number had been compromised and a car registered in my name was found with blood all over it at a crime scene near the Mexican border.”

Insisting that Andersen’s family was in danger, the caller pretended he could keep her – and her money – safe if she just emptied any accounts tied to her Social Security number and sent the cash to a secure haven in Hong Kong.

Andersen finally caught on that it was all a con, confessed to her “kind and understanding” husband and at least never got around to mortgaging her home, as the caller sought.

“For the last six weeks I have been asking myself how this could ever have happened to me?” Andersen told senators.

“My husband and I had worked hard all our lives to save the money the scammers stole from us,” she said. “We had hoped we could travel, and do mission work, with the money we had saved. Now, we can’t. Instead, we will need to work to try to replenish what I lost.”

Fortunately, she said, the financial disaster served to remind her “that my life is rich in ways far greater than stolen money. I live a wonderful life, in a wonderful place. I have a great husband, and a great family. I am truly blessed.”

She said she hopes her story will help keep someone else from falling prey.

The committee’s 2020 Fraud Book, released at the hearing, said the Social Security scam claimed more than $37 million last year and likely a lot more. Collins said she suspects it is “just the tip of the iceberg.”

It’s an issue that extends well beyond seniors.

Ennis said the median age of those who filed complaints was 59, two decades older than the average American.

But the records show young people are twice as likely to fall victim to the scam. They just don’t lose as much money she said.

The average fraud loss of those 20 to 29 years old was about $1,000, Ennis said, while for those 80 and over, the average topped $3,000.

Ennis said the scams “have a significant and detrimental impact on the public and on Social Security’s ability to administer its programs.”

First, she said, “they have caused and continue to cause untold anguish and financial harm to the those who fall victim to scammers’ sophisticated tactics, sometimes losing sums in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Beyond that, they have created a strain on the agency and her office trying to deal with complaints and fraud.

Groshon said the scam calls “understandably result in fear and anger” for recipients — and many extra calls to Social Security offices as they try to find out what’s true.

“In some instances,” he said, “calls to Maine offices increased by 400 to 1000%. The public questions the legitimacy of the call they just received or a voicemail they listened to, and callers from
all across the country and some from overseas begin contacting a single field office for assistance. The increased call volumes prevent the agency from being able to conduct business with those seeking our core services,” Groshon said.

Ennis said the scam “erodes the public’s trust in Social Security, and in government overall. For example, our investigators now have encountered witnesses who did not believe they were federal agents and would not speak to them, making it more difficult for us to conduct legitimate fraud investigations.”

“Educating people — particularly older Americans who are more likely to be targeted — and ramping up the government’s response are key to defeating this scam,” Collins said.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.