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If you get a call threatening to “suspend” your Social Security number for alleged illegal activity or a unpaid tax bill just hang up. It’s a scam — every single time.

The IRS has issued a consumer alert recently about an uptick in a scheme in which crooks pretend to be calling from the Social Security Administration (SSA). In fact, a number of government agencies are concerned about what they call “impostor” scams. The goal in this con is either to scare people into revealing personal information or swindling them out of money. With your personal information, identity thieves can do a lot of financial harm. They can apply for credit in your name, open utility or mobile phone accounts or even get medical treatment using your health insurance.

“Taxpayers should be on the lookout for a surge of evolving phishing emails and telephone scams, the IRS said in its July 2 warning.

In April, the Office of the Inspector General for the SSA issued a fraud advisory warning people about “spoofing” phone calls in which the caller-ID screen displays the agency’s toll-free fraud hotline. But it’s not the agency calling. In May, the OIG posted another advisory about scammer calls this time displaying the Social Security Advisory Board’s telephone number on the caller-ID.

To trick people to pick up the phone, crooks also spoof numbers with local area codes to hide their true location. It’s even possible that your neighbors will get a call with your number being used to make them answer.

The Federal Trade Commission said earlier this year for the first time, scams where con artists pretend to represent a government agency topped its list of consumer complaints.

Here are some variations of the Social Security scheme.

— You get a robocall stating that there’s been criminal activity linked to your Social Security number. You’re told that if you don’t immediately call the telephone number left on our voice mail your Social Security number will be “suspended.” To “reactivate" it you are instructed that you have to purchase gift cards as a form of payment. Then you are told to call back with the activation codes. Don’t do it!

Read: This is what a Social Security scam sounds like

— When you answer your phone, there’s an automated recording claiming that your Social Security number has already been “suspended” or “blocked” because it has been linked to some “suspicious” activity. You may be threaten with an arrest warrant or that the police will be sent to your home. To clear up the matter and unblock your number the swindler says you have to pay a fee either by wiring money, using a gift card or loading cash on a prepaid debit card. Again, total baloney.

Read: Is ‘the IRS’ asking you to pay by gift card? It’s the latest ‘impostor’ scam.

— In this version of the scheme, a person pretends to be from SSA and says you need to verify your Social Security number to clear up some other bogus issue. This time the mission is to just get your information.

Read: Beware of scammers who say it’s the government calling

In a recent FTC blog post someone wondered how could anyone fall for what appears to be an obvious scam.

“I find it hard to believe that people are not understanding that NO agency would tell you to get gift cards to pay an alleged amount due,” Joe from Florida wrote.

I understand why many people are falling prey to this scheme. They may be scared that their main source of income will be disrupted. And the criminals use this fear factor to their advantage.

Fifty-seven percent of retirees rely on Social Security as their primary source of income, according to a recent Gallup poll. If you’re frightened that your Social Security number could be suspended and as a result your monthly benefit check withheld, you may be so worried about your money that you panic and pay up or tell the caller whatever he or she wants to know.

It’s also possible because of the proliferation of data breaches that the fraudster has enough of the person’s personal information to persuade him or her that the call is coming from a real government employee.

I’ve been getting a lot of these calls and increasingly on my smartphone. I’ve written quite a bit about impostor scams and talked to a number experts. So, I know the signs of a con. Still the messages are pretty menacing. The callers are practiced at deception and can be very convincing.

Whether it’s a call, text or email, the FTC and the SSA debunk the falsehoods you’ll hear in the Social Security impostor scams.

— No, your Social Security number cannot be suspended, revoked, frozen or blocked. It anyone tells you that, hang up immediately.

— No government agencies — not the IRS, SSA or Medicare — will ask you to wire money, send cash or buy gift cards as a form of payment. Never.

— No, SSA employees would never threaten to have you arrested or send the police to your home.

— No, you don’t have to verify your Social Security number to someone who makes an unsolicited call to you.

— Yes, the SSA may call you if you’ve working with the agency on some issue or claim. But just to make sure it’s truly the SSA calling you back, hang up and call SSA’s main number at (800) 772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778).

Please share these tips with your mama, daddy, other family members and your network of friends. This is a crime snaring a lot of people. The FTC also has a dedicated site specifically for Social Security scams: https://identitytheft.gov/ssa

By the way, don’t be tempted to play along with the scheme to toy with the swindlers. Remember you are dealing with criminals. They don’t play.

If you get one of these calls report it. Call the OIG real hotline at (800) 269-0271. (If you are deaf or hard of hearing TTY number is (866) 501-2101. You can also file a fraud report online at the OIG’s website.

Your Thoughts

Have you experience an increase in impostor calls? Where you scared? Did you fall for the scam, and if you did, please share your story. Your experience may help someone avoid becoming a victim. Send your comments to colorofmoney@washpost.com. In the subject line put “Social Security Scam.”

Read more:

Robocalls have these retirees afraid to answer their phones

The scammers who bilked seniors out of more than half a billion dollars

Retirement Rants and Raves

I’m interested in your experiences or concerns about retirement or aging. What do you like about retirement? What came as a surprise?

If you haven’t retired yet, what concerns you financially?

You can rant or rave. This space is yours. It’s a chance for you to express what’s on your mind. Send your comments to colorofmoney@washpost.com. Please include your name, city and state. In the subject line put “Retirement Rants and Raves.”

In last week’s newsletter, I discussed the coming shortfall in the Social Security Trust Fund. The Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund (OASI), which pays retirement and survivor benefits, will be unable to pay full benefits in 2034, according to the 2019 trustee report for the Social Security and Medicare trust funds. Without a fix, OASI will have only enough continuing tax income to pay 77 percent of scheduled payments.

Read: Dear 2020 Democratic presidential candidates: Fixing Social Security should be one of your top priorities, too

I asked: What do you want to hear from the presidential candidates about Social Security?

George Jones from Florida wrote, “My wife and I are seniors and we both receive Social Security benefits which make up about 66 percent of our combined retirement income. If in about 15 years the Social Security system lessens our benefits by [the shortfall] that’s around $8,000 yearly for us. That is a serious amount of money and would amount to substantial lifestyle changes for us along with tens of millions other seniors depending on those crucial monthly Social Security payments, which we worked for and deserve. Neither Trump or congressional Republicans are doing anything on this issue other than kicking the can down the street at the same time they are having the wealthy and corporations pay less and less in taxes. The Democratic presidential candidates are also doing very little or nothing to come up with sound fiscal Social Security fixes. Seniors, we must make our voices heard loud and clear and I suggest we organize a new political party to advocate for seniors. Call it the ‘Graycratic’ party.”

“There is nothing more important for Congress than making sure these programs can fully pay benefits to retirees out into the future,” wrote Mike Vaughn of Texas. “Retirees are relying heavily on Social Security, and a lot of people my age (57) are not even saving money for retirement, which is scary.

Read more:

Will Social Security be around when I’m ready to retire?

In search of a simple fix for Social Security

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