By Thomas Goldsmith
The caller’s voice sounds oddly distant as she reels off a string of lies.
But the meaning is clear as she falsely tells people on the line that their Social Security accounts will be “blocked permanently” unless they do what they are told.
People in North Carolina and around the nation have been getting a computer-generated variation of this most common form of Social Security scam, the impersonation of an agent of the massive entitlement program. It can show up repeatedly, displaying a different false 800 number each time.
“We did not receive any input, dear citizen,” the voice says in a message received last week by a Wake County resident and forwarded to North Carolina Health News. “In order to speak with Social Security personal (sic) regarding your Social Security, press one and this automated system will connect you with the official.”
Click the arrow at the left to hear a message typical of phone scammers.
The North Carolina Department of Justice regularly gets reports about this type of scam, spokeswoman Laura Brewer said. So far during calendar 2019, DOJ has referred to law enforcement cases including those of :
- A woman who wired $23,000 to scammers who said her bank account had been compromised,
- A man who gave criminals his Social Security number after they said it had been illegally used in Texas,
- A consumer who bought $2,500 in gift cards to give to scammers before police told him he was being duped, and
- A person who was told her Social Security number had been suspended because of “suspicious activity” on the account.
The most recent report by Social Security’s Office of the Inspector General places this sort of exploitation, intended to garner people’s vital personal data, at the top of its list of allegations received, numbering 161,402 in 2018.
The report shows that impersonation of a Social Security employee draws about eight times as many complaints as the next most common scam, which was 21,172 instances of consumer fraud involving old-age and survivors insurance.
‘I was just lucky’
George Hinestrosa, 54, a retired Army vet in Fayetteville, checked with local law enforcement in May after receiving a call purporting to be from the Social Security Administration and claiming that his number at the agency had been involved in a money-laundering and drug-trafficking scheme.
“I was just lucky that I asked a lot of questions,” Hinestrosa said in a phone interview.
“If you are involved in something that is that extreme they would come to your house. It didn’t feel right.”
The scam artist in this case went as far as to find information about a Social Security official and use the official’s name and biography as he tried to convince Hinestrosa the call was legit. The caller’s accent made him doubt this stratagem.
“He said, ‘Just look me up at blah, blah, blah, the Department of Justice,’” Hinestrosa said. “Obviously that person I was looking at, the name and the voice did not match up with the person I was talking to.”
Sometimes recipients only get a first layer of calls, like the one with that sounded cyber-generated to NC State University linguistics professor Robin Dodsworth, who reviewed the recording received by NC Health News.
Flat-sounding voice a clue
“There are two main clues: first, the very flat intonation, lacking the rises and falls that typically indicate word and clause boundaries, and second, the mispronunciation of ‘personnel’ so that it sounds like ‘personal,’” Dodsworth said in an email. “This latter clue could also result from the text being written by a non-native English speaker; that is, the actual word in the text might be ‘personal.’”
The North Carolina state attorney general’s office offers these tips on what to do when reached by scammers posing as a Social Security agents.
- Faced with pressure from a talkative caller, consumers should call a halt and make sure they know with whom they’re talking and whether to give out personal information. (Likely not.)
- Hang up, then use the following resources:
Phone: Social Security at 800-772-1213
- For Medicare-related scams:
- Hang up, then use the following resources:
- Don’t give your Social Security number, or any part of it, to someone who calls you cold. The same goes for bank account and credit card information.
- Remember that no one who is really from Social Security will say your benefits will be taken away or ask for funds to be sent through a wire transfer or gift card.
- Report someone trying to get personal information in North Carolina by calling the DOJ Consumer Protection Division at 877-566-7226.
The NC General Assembly sent a bill to Gov. Roy Cooper Wednesday that would prevent telephone solicitors from “spoofing” or disguising their real phone number by displaying, for example, a number that identifies itself as the Social Security Administration. Cooper was considering the bill as of Thursday, his office said.
“No telephone solicitor shall cause misleading information to be transmitted to users of caller identification technologies or otherwise block or misrepresent the origin of the telephone solicitation,” House Bill 724 says.
Truth in Caller ID
Called the Truth in Caller ID bill, the measure was sponsored by House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) and three Republican colleagues. It also received support from a long list of bipartisan co-sponsors.
The North Carolina state attorney general’s office has been warning people who receive Social Security about these scammers since January following increased reports of the practice. An awareness campaign emphasizes that real Social Security agents do not call to threaten benefits or to ask a member of the public to send money in any form.
“These scammers are able to fool your caller ID to show the SSA’s real phone number (1-800-772-1213), but that’s not the SSA calling,” the office says in a public service announcement. “Your Social Security number is not about to be suspended. You don’t have to verify your number to anyone who calls out of the blue. And your bank accounts are not about to be seized.”
A written 2019 complaint in the files of N.C. Department of Justice reads:
“People said they were with Social Security Admin. and that someone was using my SSN fraudulently. I was told that they were going to stop my SS checks.
“They had me empty my bank accounts of $2,700 and buy prepaid cards with them. They then asked for information from the back of the prepaid cards.
“They then told that a U.S. Marshal would meet me at my home to provide me with a new SS number which I could then use to redeposit the money into my accounts.
“All of this happened on Monday when I returned their call. On Tuesday when I had not heard from them I went to the bank and learned the cards had already been drained.”
Staff writer Taylor Knopf contributed to this story.