Misplaced trust is essential to the success of nearly every con. Con artists know that they need to gain your trust before they can get their hands on your cash, and one of the easiest ways to achieve so is to pretend to be someone else.
These con artists may pose as anybody, from a concerned family member phoning after a vehicle accident to a representative from technical support warning of a virus on your computer to a potential romantic interest found through an online dating service.
Government official impersonators are among the most cunning con artists. It’s human nature to immediately comply with a request for information made through telephone or electronic communication that appears to have originated with a government entity. The problem is that you shouldn’t do that while dealing with a scam artist.
You should learn to spot a government impostor scam if you want to avoid becoming a victim. Here is a review of several frequent ones, as well as the telltale indications that you should be on the lookout for.
Types of Government Impersonation Scams
Read up about government imposter scams and others on the FTC’s blog. Some of the most frequent that may be found on the site are listed below.
- Scams in Sweepstakes
An imposter posing as a government official calls you with the fantastic news that you have won a huge sum in a national lottery. (There is no federally sponsored lottery in the United States, but the con artist is betting that you will be too delighted to realize that there isn’t one.)
The fraudster may pose as a representative from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) or some other official entity (such as the “National Sweepstakes Bureau”) that does not exist. They might even use what seems like a legitimate government office number or location.
After catching your attention, the caller will inform you that you must make an immediate payment in order to claim your prize. They may say it’s to cover taxes, fees, or “insure delivery” of your prize money.
In most cases, you’ll be instructed to send a wire transfer of funds immediately, lest you lose your chance to collect the award. The request for payment may seem more credible if you are instructed to send it to a reputable insurance firm like Lloyd’s of London.
Of course, the wiring instructions they provide aren’t for Lloyd’s of London or any other official institution. It goes directly into the account of the fraudster, who then vanishes with the money, leaving you to wait for a windfall that will never come.
- Scams involving unclaimed property
If you receive a phone call, letter, or email from the government stating they have found money in your name, hang up immediately. It may be the result of a lottery win, an inheritance, or a dormant bank account. In many cases, the fraudsters will pretend to be affiliated with the state’s unclaimed money agency or the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA).
Con artists frequently use forged stationery or “spoof” an organization’s email address or phone number to make their correspondence appear legitimate, despite the fact that both are legitimate businesses.
However, these fraudsters, in contrast to legitimate businesses, may insist that you give them money before you receive your reward. Another common tactic is to ask for sensitive information that might be used for identity theft, such as financial information, credit card numbers, or Social Security numbers. Usually, they’ll put you on the spot by stressing how swiftly you have to move to protect your money, and they’ll also warn you that the whole deal has to stay under wraps.
In a 2016 interview with Stateline, NAUPA director David Millby said he had received hundreds of letters from people who had fallen victim to this hoax. Assistant Massachusetts Treasurer Mark Bracken says he has heard from victims who have spent thousands of dollars attempting to retrieve monies that simply don’t exist in the same article.
- Scams in Debt Collection
A sweepstakes fraud works because it makes you feel good about yourself, so you don’t think things through. However, a debt collection scam will play on your anxieties for their own financial advantage.
The government-connected debt collector calls or writes a letter that seems official but is actually a scam. The Federal Trade Commission, the police station down the street, or some other branch of government might be involved. You’ve been told by an imposter “official” that you’re deeply in debt and must make a quick payment or risk going to jail.
Usually, these fake debt collectors will demand that you wire the money or load it onto a prepaid debit card that they will then use to make purchases. These two anonymous payment alternatives are favorites of con artists, but no respectable debt collector would ever ask for payment via one of these methods. Arrest threats are likewise illegal and should not be made.
- IRS Scams
Swindlers pretending to be from the IRS are a common variation on the debt collection scam (IRS). You’ve been informed of a tax debt and told you need to settle it right away, typically with a wire transfer or prepaid debit card. Then they blackmail you into paying with threats of arrest, deportation (if you’re a recent immigrant), closure of your business, or suspension of your driving privileges.
Fake IRS agents have a toolbox full of scare tactics to make their warnings ring true. Spoofed phone numbers and emails that appear to be from the Internal Revenue Service are common methods of deception.
They could also have your Social Security number’s final four digits memorized or be able to provide you with a phony IRS employee identification number. If you don’t pay immediately, you can receive a second call from someone claiming to be from the police or the DMV, using a different faked number.
But that’s not how the actual IRS does business. If you have an outstanding tax bill, you will be notified by letter, not over the phone or over email. It will never call you and ask for your credit card number or insist that you pay with a prepaid card or wire transfer.
- Scams in Immigration
Immigrants are a common target of scams, and not just those involving the IRS that use the prospect of deportation as a scare tactic. Swindlers who call often say they’re calling from the United States. Services for Citizens and Foreign Nationals (USCIS). Some organizations employ a name that sounds similar but isn’t actually associated with the government, such as the “Immigration Service.”
These con artists will then tell you that you have a federal tax debt. They may claim you owe money for no apparent reason, or they may offer you a phony excuse like a “government-funded scholarship” that you have to pay for. Obviously, they want immediate payment through wire transfer or prepaid card. They warn that failing to do so will result in your immediate arrest and deportation, and the loss of all opportunity of obtaining a visa.
The fraudsters, like the IRS imposters before them, have a wealth of information at their disposal. For instance, they are usually aware of your full name, current residence, and the type of visa you are requesting. Spoofed phone numbers and phony phone trees make it seem like the legitimate USCIS is calling when they are actually imposters. The single telltale sign of a false call is a request for payment over the phone, which is never made by the actual USCIS or any other government agency.
- Social Security Scams
This con has its own unique twists and turns. Scammers may make a request for money, but their true goal is to steal your Social Security number.
Scammers phone and say your Social Security number (SSN) has been stolen or hacked, claiming to be from the SSA. A form of this fraud claims that your Social Security number is “banned” because it was used in a drug- or money-laundering-related felony, usually in Texas.
Someone else claims that your Social Security number has been used to apply for credit cards, risking the termination of your benefits. Commonly, con artists would use a fake of the Social Security Administration’s actual phone number to bolster the legitimacy of their scams.
Scammers will play on your emotions to get you worked up, and then ask for your Social Security number to “confirm” it. It’s very uncommon for them to charge you money to “reactivate” your SSN or issue you a brand new one after you’ve had it banned.
It’s possible that they’ll make even more grave threats in the second phase of the fraud. In one form, you are warned that your bank account is going to be confiscated and that you should get all of your money out immediately. You “keep it safe” by providing them gift cards and the codes to them, so they may spend it. You may listen to another version of the hoax call on the FTC’s blog, which claims that you will be arrested if you do not comply.
- Medicare Scams
Medicare recipients, who are often elderly Americans, are the intended victims of these schemes. Shortly after the government revealed in the autumn of 2018 that it would be mailing out new Medicare cards that did not have the user’s SSN printed on them, the FTC issued a warning to the public about one Medicare fraud.
Scammers used this information to target the elderly by contacting them pretending to work for Medicare. They informed victims they had to “verify” information such as their Social Security number and bank account data or pay a charge for new cards.
This, however, was not the first time that Medicare has been the target of fraud. The AARP claims that scams like this one occur every time Medicare registration opens.
The Symptoms of a Government Imposter Scam
Scammers who pretend to be official government representatives are quite crafty. Spoofed phone numbers, false letterhead, and details that only a government employee would know let them pass as the genuine deal. There are, however, indicators that their communications are bogus. Here’s an illustration:
- A cold call is made to you. An official government agency will not randomly phone you, but rather start with a letter. When communicating with the IRS, for example, a letter sent through regular mail is guaranteed to arrive in one piece. Be wary of anyone who phones you out of the blue claiming to be from the government.
- They need your Social Security number. You will never get a phone call from the Social Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, or any other government agency requesting your Social Security number. The FTC specifically advises against disclosing your SSN to any third party, regardless of the circumstances under which they request it. If someone calls you and you don’t recognize the number, don’t give up your personal information over the phone unless you’re sure they’re legitimate.
- Forcing You to Send a Wire Transfer of Funds. A wire transfer is a surefire sign of a fraudster, as stated by the Federal Trade Commission. Anyone asking for cash or a gift card as an alternative to a bank transfer should be treated with suspicion.
- You are under constant pressure to take immediate action. In most cases, the government won’t move quickly, even if you request it to. Consequently, if a person posing as a government official tells you that you must take immediate action to get a reward, settle a debt, or escape jail, they are most likely a fraud.
There is no such thing as a comprehensive list of cons. Scammers are creative, and they constantly come up with new methods to trick their victims. The scams on this list are the most prevalent ones used by government impostors right now, but tomorrow there will undoubtedly be others that take a somewhat different tack.
Check out our articles on topics like credit card fraud, mortgage relief scams, and miraculous health cures to arm yourself against these and other new frauds as they emerge. Knowing the many forms of fraud can help you recognize them even when they reemerge disguised as something else.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) maintains a blog that readers can peruse to keep in the know. It’s always up-to-date with the newest methods fraudsters are employing to steal your money. You will also gain insight into consumer issues, such as product defects and service delays.