When you think of Social Security scams you probably envision questionable emails or badgering, high-pressure phone calls. Those are certainly the most prominent and widespread versions of the scam, but they’re not the only ways criminals try to exploit the public.
One fraud that’s been around for a long time, and still occurs, comes in the form of fake letters from Social Security. Yep, we’re talking about real, hard-copy “dead-tree” letters; aka good old-fashioned snail mail. Despite the stylishly retro approach, at bottom it’s still the same cynical, ruthless scam.
Seriously? Snail Mail Scam Letters?
The idea of scammers doing their work through regular letter mail might seem bizarrely old-fashioned, like holding up a train, but in truth it’s not as strange as it appears. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service recorded 441 mail fraud convictions in 2018 alone, and the FTC’s 2019-2020 stats show 1,000 complaints of mail fraud.
If you think those numbers sound relatively small, you’re right. The same FTC report detailed 16,000 complaints of phone scams, 10,000 online scams and 4,000 email scams. So why do some scammers still persist in using such an old-school approach? Because, simply, it works. While mail-based scams accounted for a lower number of complaints, the scammers were rewarded with a higher median “take” from each victim: $1,800 as opposed to $1,500 for phone scammers and only a few hundred dollars each for the others. If anything, the quaint feel of a fake letter scam may lend it an air of legitimacy, especially with the older demographic that’s typically targeted in Social Security scams.
Phone scams and online scams have become prevalent, in large part, because they scale well. Robo dialers and email servers can reach out to tens of thousands, or even millions, of potential victims each day at low cost. Fraud by mail requires research (to get names and addresses), plus the cost of paper, printing, envelopes and postage. More to the point, it requires time and patience, which criminals are often unwilling to invest. Don’t sell it short, though: It’s old-fashioned, but it’s still effective.
Spotting Fake Letters From Social Security
If you receive a letter that appears to come from the Social Security Administration, but strikes you as dubious, give it a close look. Start with the postmark on the envelope: Was it mailed from the same city as the SSA office you ordinarily deal with? Then look at the letter itself and ideally compare it with one you’ve previously received from the SSA. Are the formatting and the typefaces identical? Does this new letter show the same logo, and the same footer at the bottom of the document, as the previous one? If any of those things are different, that could be a sign that your instincts are correct.
Next, look at the language of the document. Real SSA letters strive for clear communication. Scam letters are filled with impressive-sounding “bureaucrat-ese,” designed to confuse and often to intimidate. Scam letters, like scam emails, may also show oddly jarring spelling and grammatical errors or awkward phrasing.
Finally, look at the content. If the writer is asking for (or demanding!) immediate payment, or requesting your personal information, you can automatically assume it’s a scam. The SSA doesn’t do that, and it especially doesn’t ask for payment in the form of gift cards or a wire transfer.
What To Do if You Receive Fake Letters From Social Security
If you believe you’ve received a scam Social Security letter, don’t use any of the contact information given in the letter. Instead, report your letter at the website of the SSA’s Office of the Inspector General, or — if you’re more comfortable with phoning — call them at 1-800-269-0271. You should also report the letter to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, so they can attempt to trace the scammers from their end.
If you have already sent money — or given out your SSN or other personal information — in response to one of these letters, you should report the incident to your local law enforcement agency and IdentityTheft.gov as well. It might also be a good idea to contact each of the three major credit reporting bureaus and have them place a credit freeze or extended fraud alert on your account. It will be mildly inconvenient (you’ll need to contact the credit bureau and have it temporarily lifted, should you need to apply for credit) but it can potentially save you a lot of money and trouble.
Growing Social Security Scams
“Imposter” scams, where scammers pretend to be from the Social Security Administration, account for a large and growing percentage of overall fraud. Reports of this type of fraud rose from just over 15,000 in 2018 to over 478,000 in 2019 and well over 700,000 in 2020. Losses rose in lockstep with the number of complaints, reaching a total of nearly $45 million in 2020.
Those numbers are genuinely shocking, and it makes sense to protect yourself to the best of your ability. So how should you do that?
Protecting Yourself from Social Security Scams
The first step is to stay informed about current scams and how they work. The AARP’s Scams and Fraud page is a good starting point and so is the FTC’s Scams page. The SSA’s own Scam Prevention and Reporting Page is an excellent resource as well, and includes specific steps you can take to add security to your SSA account.
The most important protection you can have is a healthy degree of skepticism. However plausible the “pitch” might be, the SSA won’t contact you this way for personal information or payment. Any letter, email, text or phone call that tries to rush you into taking immediate action is most likely a scam. If in doubt, have a trusted friend or family member review the letter for you. Chances are, they’ll agree it’s bogus.
- U.S. Postal Inspection Service – Mail Fraud
- U.S. Federal Trade Commission – Protecting Older Consumers 2019-2020
- Schools First Federal Credit Union – Don’t Fall for These Social Security Scams
- U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – Five Ways To Recognize a Social Security Scam
- New York Elder Law Attorney Blog – Recognizing the 4 Most Common Types of Social Security Fraud
- U.S. Social Security Administration – Office of the Inspector General
- U.S. Postal Inspection Service – Report a Crime
- U.S. Federal Trade Commission – IdentityTheft.gov
- U.S. Federal Trade Commission – Extended Fraud Alerts and Credit Freezes
- AARP – Social Security Imposter Complaints Shatter Record in 2020
- AARP – Scams & FraudU.S. Federal Trade Commission – Avoiding and Reporting Scams