Picture this. You’re sitting at home when you get a telephone call from an unknown number. When you answer, the caller on the other end identifies themself as a government employee and informs you that a police officer will soon be at your doorstep to arrest you. The caller urges you to check the telephone number that appeared on your phone. Sure enough, it matches a government agency. You are caught off guard. And worried.
You owe back taxes, the caller says.
Or, in another version of this phone call, your social security benefits are at risk.
In a different iteration, you are at risk of being deported because you missed jury duty.
The only way to avoid being taken to jail or to court is to purchase gift cards and read off the numbers to the government official.
By now, perhaps you realize you’ve been duped. Caller I.D. telephone numbers can be spoofed. That “government official” with a badge number is in fact a con artist, a government imposter. And if you’re one of the victims called by these scammers, you aren’t alone.
A new study from the Better Business Bureau reveals that 44% of Americans have encountered a government imposter scam. BBB estimates victims have collectively lost hundreds of millions of dollars to these cons. Law enforcement officials say they receive hundreds of thousands of complaints. Complaints to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) totaled $450 million in losses since 2015.
Whether the scammer purports to be a tax official, a representative from the Social Security Administration or a law enforcement officer, these con artists have a few things in common. Their con is predicated on using fear and intimidation to trick victims into turning over personal information or money, (often in the form of gift cards). These scammers also threaten legal action or jail time if you don’t pay up. Scammers may tell consumer that their Social Security number has been associated with a crime, or may threaten to deport recent immigrants or arrest people for missing jury duty.
BBB’s investigative study -- Government Impostor Scams: Reports Decrease, Scammers Pivot for New Opportunities -- highlights the risk of this common but costly fraud. The study also notes that while the number of government scam reports has fluctuated, scams have become more diverse and more sophisticated over time. Additionally, many scammers have taken advantage of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic by posing as officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Internal Revenue Service representatives who can expedite economic impact payments, or contact tracers employed with local government agencies.
In 2019, BBB reports indicated that scams featuring “tax officials” claiming back taxes were due dropped sharply. Unfortunately, another similarly insidious scam popped up instead; reports of Social Security Administration (SSA) impersonators quadrupled in the U.S. last year.
One woman told BBB in June 2019 she received two robocalls on the same day that both purported to be from “Social Security.” The second one connected her with a live person, who told the woman her Social Security number had been compromised and asked for her full name and the last four digits of her Social Security number. When she provided a fake name and number, the caller told her that her Social Security number had been linked to crime reports in El Paso, Texas, and told her she needed to pay nearly $10,000. The woman made the caller aware that she knew it was a scam, and the scammer hung up.
Impostor calls, originating in large volume from India, must first go through a “gateway carrier” in the U.S. These carriers often provide both “spoofed” phone numbers that appear on caller ID and return phone call numbers for voicemails that appear to go to locations in the U.S. or Canada. The Department of Justice recently sued two of these carriers while the FTC and Federal Communication Commission issued warning letters to others. As a result, robocalls and individual calls coming from India have declined drastically over the last several months.
Other law enforcement efforts in the U.S. have led to the arrest of dozens of Indian nationals for laundering money related to these scams. However, BBB’s study shows that cases are rarely prosecuted in India.
BBB urges consumers to be wary of callers claiming to be from a government agency. Government officials will not cold call and threaten you. They will never demand payment via gift cards.
Here’s what to do if you’ve encountered a government impostor scam:
IRS: The Internal Revenue Service advises people to fill out the “IRS Impersonation Scam” form on the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Impersonation’s website, tigta.gov, or call TIGTA at 1-800-366-4484.
Social Security: The Office of the Inspector General, Social Security Administration (SSA IG) has its own online form to take complaints about frauds impersonating the SSA.
Federal Trade Commission: 877-FTC Help or ftc.gov.
Internet Crime Complaint Center: https://www.ic3.gov/complaint/splash.aspx.
Contact your cellphone carrier, which may offer free services such as scam call identification and blocking, ID monitoring, a second phone number to give out to businesses so you can use your main number for close friends or a new number if you get too many spam calls.
File a report with BBBScam Tracker.
The more you know, the safer you’ll be. Learn more at bbb.org/fakegov.
Sheron Patrick is the Communications Manager for the Better Business Bureau of Northwest + Pacific serving Alaska. He lives in in Anchorage, him and his team write articles and alerts on tips to help keep Alaskan consumers safe.