It’s a lie, but one that is so believable, last year victims were swindled out of nearly $45 million, with an average individual loss of $5,800, according to the Office of the Inspector General for the Social Security Administration. More than 700,000 complaints of Social Security-related telephone scams were filed in 2020. A suburban Chicago man pleaded guilty early this year to laundering cash from a scheme that defrauded elderly victims. The scam allegedly conned an elderly Massachusetts woman out of $900,000 that she was urged to transfer from her bank and retirement accounts.
Social Security numbers can’t be suspended. No government agency will ask you to pay with gift cards. The feds will never threaten arrest or legal action unless you immediately send cash.
You may wonder: How do so many people fall for what seems like an obvious scam?
The simple answer is, they get scared there’s a chance what they are being told is true. They are persuaded that it’s possible they could be arrested, or that their almighty Social Security number will be messed with. Fear overwhelms any reservations they may have and sucks them into the con. The scheme becomes real to them, so they will do what the scammer says to avoid any trouble with the law.
This is what happened to my 62-year-old sister:
She was at work when the call came on her cellphone. My sister had been talking to the scammer for a few minutes before she patched me in.
“Shell, the police are coming to my job to arrest me,” she said.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
As she caught me up on the conversation, I immediately knew it was a Social Security scam. How could she be falling for this nonsense, I thought to myself. I had warned her to hang up on such calls.
But I had to stop myself from judging her, because she was terrified. Following a divorce decades ago that left her broke, my sister struggled to stabilize herself financially. During the Great Recession, she lost a well-paying government contract job. She managed to recover from that crisis, but a much lower-paying job means her money is tight. She was worried that what she was being told was true. The fear fogged her judgment. She didn’t hear the details of what the scammer was saying, only that her job might be in jeopardy.
Of course, the caller didn’t know my sister’s history, but he heard what I heard — alarm — and he was using that against her. He was close to getting what he wanted. That is, until I got on the line.
Listen to the audio of the call here.
Here’s why he was able to disarm my sister: He already had a lot of her personal information, which played into her thinking that perhaps what he was telling her was legit. He knew where she banked and how many accounts she had.
“Currently what would be the balance of your savings account at Wells Fargo?” he asked.
“Don’t tell him,” I whispered.
“I’m not giving that out,” my sister said.
By now, after a short pep talk with me, she had regained her composure. She played along. (This is not something you should do, by the way. I was on a fact-finding mission as a journalist. You should not engage a con artist. Instead, report the scam.)
Undeterred, the scammer persisted in trying to get my sister to give up the amount of money in her bank account, asking, “Less than a hundred dollars, less than five hundred dollars?”
She again refused to divulge the information, which led to this claim: “Listen, the reason I’m asking you this question is because by the end of the day, we are going to freeze all the bank accounts and all the credit cards which have been issued under your name, under your social identity. There are money laundering charges that have been pressed under your name. Like a hundred thousand dollars have been wired locally and internationally to the drug trafficking countries like Mexico and Colombia.”
“Well, I haven’t been to any of those places,” she said. “And if I could afford it, I probably wouldn’t go there anyway.”
The scoundrel pressed on, telling my sister, “I have each and every evidence against you, that your Social Security number was misused.”
“Okay, so what do you want me to do, sir?” she asked.
It was all about the money: “What will be the available balance in your savings account?” the scammer repeated, at one point saying it was his last time asking.
“Don’t tell,” I said again.
The scammer finally realized I was on the line, but he continued the con, saying he was calling from the “investigation department of the Social Security Administration.”
I asked whether she needed to get a lawyer.
“Yes, yes, yes,” he said and then immediately tried to dissuade my sister from doing exactly that.
He claimed that an arrest warrant had already been issued for my sister and that she would “be behind bars for the next six months of time.”
“You know, this is a fraud, right?” I said, tired of his deceitfulness. “Why are you calling people doing this?”
“Thank you so much,” he said. Soon after, the line went dead.
My sister was distraught that she almost fell for the fraud.
“I feel so foolish,” she said, making me want to cry.
At this moment, I truly understood why the Social Security scam is so successful.
Intimidation tactics work.
I heard a despicable defrauder. My sister heard the possibility of her life being destroyed.