HELENA – It all begins with a threatening phone call.
“…Enforcement agencies to suspend your Social Security number on an immediate basis, as we have received suspicious trails of information in your name,” one call says.
Thousands of people across the country have received a prerecorded message, saying their Social Security numbers have been linked to criminal activity, like a stolen car or confiscated drug paraphernalia. It says they need to call back immediately.
“Now, if I don’t hear a call from you, we will have to issue an arrest warrant under your name and get your arrested, so get back to me as soon as possible,” the message continues.
Consumer advocates say these calls are an increasingly common scam.
“In some instances you’ll see where they’re asking you to verify your Social Security number, so you’re at risk for identity theft, but then they will also typically want you to make some sort of payment with a prepaid debit card as well,” said Marcus Meyer, an investigator with the Montana Office of Consumer Protection.
The scammers will often “spoof” their phone numbers, making the calls appear to come from the authentic Social Security Administration offices. Meyer said there have also been some reports of criminals intercepting calls intended for the SSA.
The Federal Trade Commission reported about 3,200 complaints about the Social Security scam in 2017, with victims losing a total about $210,000. In 2018, more than 35,000 people reported the scam, and they lost around $10 million.
The scam is growing in Montana as well. Meyer said OCP received 56 reports in December alone.
The Social Security scam is a variation on a more well-known scam, where criminals pretend to be from the IRS and claim a victim has unpaid taxes. But while there may be some superficial differences, Meyer said the basic root of the scam is the same.
“We want Montana citizens to be aware that scams evolve over time, so just be aware of common traits,” he said.
Meyer said a real government agency wouldn’t call you to tell you that your Social Security number has been “frozen” or that you have been linked to an investigation. He said, as always, you should be very suspicious if someone demands an immediate payment.
“The main red flag is to be aware of a fast payment and that sense of urgency,” said Meyer. “A legitimate agency is not going to ask you to make a payment through a prepaid debit card or a wire transfer or through a gift card.”
If you receive one of these suspicious calls, Meyer recommends you report it at the local, state and federal levels: to local law enforcement, to OCP and to the Federal Trade Commission or Social Security Administration.
You can reach OCP at (406) 444-4500. Information is also available on the agency’s website.