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This Common Social Security Scam Could Cost You Thousands

Katie Brockman, The Motley Fool

Nobody likes to think they could get scammed, but fraudsters are getting smarter, and scams are becoming more difficult to detect. These schemes are more sophisticated than a Nigerian prince asking for cash, and you may not even realize you're being duped until it's too late.

One of the fastest-growing scams in the country involves scammers posing as Social Security Administration officials. You may receive a call from someone saying your Social Security number has been suspended or compromised in some way. Often, they'll claim somebody tried to steal your number or that it was involved in some type of crime, saying you need to provide your Social Security number to reactivate it.

Some scammers will take it a step further, saying your bank account is about to be seized. They may say you need to confirm your bank account numbers or put all your money on gift cards and give them the codes -- which means they have access to all your cash.

Stacked Social Security cards

Image source: Getty Images

Part of the reason this scam has been so successful is that the number that will come across your caller ID is the Social Security Administration's real phone number. But, of course, it's not actually the Social Security Administration calling, and the scammer has "spoofed" the caller ID system in an attempt to trick you.

Thousands of people have fallen victim to this scam, and the numbers continue to grow. In 2017, the Federal Trade Commission reported that 3,200 people experienced this scam, collectively losing around $210,000. In 2018, those numbers exploded, with 35,000 people reporting they were victims, losing around $10 million total.

These types of scams are becoming more common and more challenging to spot. But the good news is that the more you know about how these scams work, the better you can protect yourself.

How to protect your money from scammers

Being savvy about scams can save you thousands of dollars and avoid a financial disaster, and it's easier than you may think to detect suspicious activity.

Most importantly, never give out your Social Security number or bank account information to anyone over the phone or email. The Social Security Administration rarely calls individuals unannounced, and if they do call, they will never ask for your Social Security number. So if you ever get a call asking for this information, hang up and report it to the FTC

Sometimes scammers will try to frighten you into providing the information they want by threatening to withhold your Social Security benefits, suspend your Social Security number, or even have you arrested. Again, the real Social Security Administration will not make these threats, so simply hang up and report the call if you experience this.

If you receive a call from a number that appears to be from the Social Security Administration, and you're not sure whether it's legitimate, hang up and call back to the real Social Security Administration's phone number (1-800-772-1213) and ask to speak to a representative. From there, you can ask about the call you received and whether it's real or a scam. Even if the call does turn out to be legitimate, it's better to be safe than sorry.

Sometimes scammers will also send out emails with links that appear to direct you to the Social Security Administration's website, where you'll be asked to provide personal information. If you receive one of these emails, check the sender's email address closely to see whether it's an official Social Security Administration address. You'll often be able to tell right away if it looks suspicious. You can also hover your cursor over the links in the email to see where they direct you. If it's not an official ".gov" website, it's likely a scam. If you're unsure, don't click on any of the links in the email and call the Social Security Administration to double check.

Keep an eye on your Social Security benefits -- even before you claim

Anyone over the age of 18 can create a mySocialSecurity account to keep tabs on earnings and benefits. Even if you haven't started claiming benefits yet, you can get an estimate of what you may receive once you file based on your past earnings.

Not only is this beneficial for retirement planning purposes, but it can also help detect fraud. For example, if you haven't started claiming your benefits yet, scammers may try to file for benefits in your name. If they're successful, you would have no way of knowing unless you check your statements to see that your money is already being cashed out by someone else. By checking your account on a regular basis, you can ensure there's no suspicious activity. If you do see something suspicious, contact the Social Security Administration immediately -- it could save you thousands of dollars.

There are dozens of different scams out there, and scammers are only getting more sophisticated with their methods. But the more you educate yourself about what these scams look like and how to avoid them, the less likely you are to fall victim to one.

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