“You’ve probably received one: A recorded call warns of a problem with your Social Security number. To fix it and avoid legal action, you’re told, you must call back immediately—and pay up.”
You’d think everyone would know to ignore these calls. However, these criminals are so convincing, says The New York Times in the article “How Not to Become a Victim of Social Security Fraud Calls,” that many people fall for the schemes and end up losing money. They buy gift cards and often, give up their personal PIN (Personal Identification Number), losing thousands of dollars.
It’s not clear whether the volume of calls is increasing. However, the government is getting thousands of complaints about them, reports the Social Security Administration’s inspector general, Gail Ennis. There have been 250,000 online complaints made, since a new dedicated digital reporting form was released in November 2019.
Other regulators are also reporting a flood of complaints. The Federal Trade Commission has received more than 166,000 complaints about fraudulent Social Security calls last year, and the average individual loss is about $1,500. The Senate’s Special Committee on Aging said that Social Security impersonation schemes were the single most reported fraud on its fraud hotline last year.
In January, the committee heard from a woman who lost $150,000 in a Social Security scheme.
The government is trying to fight the fraud in a few different ways. The Justice Department took legal action in January against two telecommunication companies that it says serve as “gateways” for illegal robocalls, by funneling them to the U.S. from oversees. However, stopping the calls is not easily accomplished. There are many gateway telecommunications companies, so hitting two just means that the criminals will take their business elsewhere.
Congress passed the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act (TRADED), which requires telecommunication companies to adopt technology to identify spoofed calls. Spoofed calls are calls that appear to come from legitimate phone numbers. However, the FCC has yet to set rules for how the law will be carried out, so relief for consumers may be as far as a year away.
Here’s what you need to know about Social Security and other fraudulent calls:
Don’t answer calls from unfamiliar numbers. Let the calls go to voicemail, or the answering machine, if you still use one.
If you answer the phone and someone demands money immediately, hang up.
Report the call to the inspector general’s office on the Social Security Administration’s website. There’s a form that asks you to create a unique identification number, so you can ask for that number if anyone calls to verify their identity.
Be aware that even a phone call that appears to be from Social Security mostly likely will not be from the agency. Schemes that involve a suspension of benefits work because they target senior’s biggest fear—losing their benefits.
There are other Social Security schemes. Some involve official looking papers, and there has been an increase in the number of scams that start with an official-looking text. The Social Security Administration does not text people, unless they have signed up to have authentication codes sent to your phone when logging into a Social Security account.
There’s not much that can be done by the individual to stop the endless stream of robocalls. You can register your number on the Federal Trade Commission’s Do Not Call list, but that will only reduce calls from legitimate telemarketers. The criminals will still call. The best advice is not to answer the phone, unless it’s from someone you know, and never, ever give in to demands of immediate payment. That’s always a red flag for fraud.
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In a clear warning, an Ohio prosecutor tells scammers they are now looking at felony charges.
Monetary crimes against the elderly were previously treated as misdemeanors and often settled in civil court. However, changes in the law mean that today these cases are taken more seriously, as reported in The Journal-News article, “105-year-old woman trying to help grandson gets scammed out of $4,800.” Ohio’s Butler County Prosecutor Mike Gmoser told reporters that even a small amount of theft will result in felony charges.
Assistant Prosecutor Gloria Sigman successfully prosecuted three scammers, a couple who scammed a 105-year-old grandmother out of $4,800 using a clone phone app and another man who beat up and stole from a 75-year-old woman.
One victim was 105-year-old Louise Limper. Her former caregiver Latisha Garrett and her boyfriend Eric Kleinholz scammed Limper out of $4,800, telling her that her grandson needed the money because his car broke down in Dayton, Gmoser said.
Kleinholz had downloaded an app that allowed him to use his phone, and cloned another phone number, which was Miss Limper’s actual grandson’s phone number, according to Oxford Detective Matt Blauvelt. When Miss Limper received the phone call on her caller ID, it appeared it had her grandson’s phone number on it.
The caregiver took Limper to the bank to get the cash. She told Limper she would mail the money but stole the cash instead, officials said. Detectives got Kleinholz to confess to his part in the scheme.
Kleinholz, an ex-con, was found guilty of identity theft and theft and was sentenced to three years in prison. This was a first offense for Garrett, but because she was in a “position of trust,” the judge was able to send her to prison for 18 months on the two felony counts of telecommunications fraud and theft.
The second case involved Randy Villani, 50, who attacked a 75-year-old woman and stole $1,000 from her. Villani did some odd jobs for the victim. However, he also convinced her to give him $300 he said he needed to get his sister out of jail and for his mother, who lives in the same trailer park, to buy groceries. Both turned out to be lies, according to police.
The last time he came to her house, he allegedly became violent and told her “If you call the police, I will come back and rape you and I will kill your husband.”
The victim’s daughter had just given her $1,000 for bills, medicine, and to repair her air conditioner. Villani took it and ran out, officials said. A jury found him guilty of aggravated burglary, robbery, aggravated menacing, and disrupting public service. Villani will be sentenced next month.
Gmoser told reporters that the Elder Abuse Task Force did a tremendous job in this case, and said that every police agency in the country is helping his team protect the elderly. “That is a sea change from years ago,” he added.