Crooks are turning to email as a way to steal Social Security benefits, often including official-looking attachments to make them seem legit, a new warning from the government says.

The emails are the newest variant of Social Security phone scams, where scam artists impersonate government officials and claim they are trying to resolve identity theft or other problems with a Social Security account. The fraudsters may threaten you with arrest or claim that they can increase your benefit in an effort to get you to send them money. Typically, they ask for payment via gift cards, cash, prepaid debit cards, wire transfers or even bitcoin.

The Social Security Administration’s watchdog, known as the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), says victims receive emails with attached letters that appear to be from Social Security or the OIG. The documents may use official-looking letterhead and government jargon to convince victims they are legitimate; they also may contain misspellings and grammar mistakes. The con artists, who typically reach out by phone, send the e-mails to give their scams a patina of legitimacy.

Social Security will never send you an email asking you to provide your personal data, such as your Social Security number, date of birth or other private information. It also will never:

  • Threaten you with arrest or other legal action if you don’t immediately pay a fine.
  • Increase your benefit in exchange for a payment.
  • Require a specific means of debt repayment, like a prepaid debit card, gift card or cash, or demand an immediate payment.
  • Ask for your credit or debit card numbers.
  • Send official letters or reports with personally identifiable information in an email.
  • Tell you that your Social Security number has been suspended.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) says it received more than 450,000 impostor complaints — or 1,230-plus a day — during the year ending Sept. 30. The figure is a 2,856 percent increase over the prior year, when there were only 15,221 complaints.

Separately, the Federal Trade Commission logged 138,548 Social Security impostor scams through the first nine months of 2019, up from 39,426 a year earlier.

If you think you’ve been the victim of a Social Security scam, contact the OIG online. You can also contact the OIG’s fraud hotline at 800-269-0271.

This article was written for AARP:

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