Yesterday, I received a slightly garbled voice mail advising me that I had a serious delinquency that needed to be resolved. I was told to call a 1-800 number to resolve the matter. I didn’t even have to check my Caller ID to know that it was a scam involving Social Security. This wasn’t my first call like this – but the frequency has definitely picked up. Friends and colleagues have ramped up complaints on social media about the calls in recent weeks.

This isn’t a new problem for much of the country either. In 2018, then-Acting Inspector General of Social Security, Gale Stallworth Stone, issued a warning about an ongoing phone scam from thieves pretending to be from the Social Security Administration (SSA).

As part of the con, scammers try to convince you to give up personal information, like Social Security numbers and bank account numbers, over the phone. In another case, a caller claims to be from “SSA headquarters” and asks you to confirm personal information, such as an SSN, “new” Medicare number, address, and date of birth.

So why are the calls picking up now? Scam-related calls seem to increase around tax season. Taxpayers are busy, the post-holiday lull at work has faded, and many folks are looking for information about tax refunds. Scammers know that a busy schedule and a scramble for tax and retirement-related information means that taxpayers may be more likely to pick up the phone.

Of course, many of these calls are “robocalls” or automated calls. In one robocall version of the scam, a computerized recording declares that your Social Security number (SSN) “has been suspended for suspicion of illegal activity,” and advises to contact a specific phone number immediately. In another version – the one I received – you’re notified that there’s a problem with your Social Security account because of a serious delinquency. The robocall or caller may also warn that if you don’t call back, your assets or benefits will be frozen until your alleged issue is resolved. 

Robocalls from scammers pretending to be from government agencies like the Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) continue to be a problem. In fact, phishing scams and identity theft concerns remain atop the IRS’ 2019 “Dirty Dozen” list of tax scams. 

To address the problem, a “Robocall Strike Force” was established in 2016. The task force was made up of communications companies, including cell and landline service providers, phone manufacturers, operating system developers, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). According to an FCC spokesperson, “This industry-led effort produced two detailed reports to the Commission and which were instrumental in laying the groundwork for both ongoing FCC policy-making efforts and industry technological work.” The spokesperson advised in 2018, “The Commission continues to consult with a wide variety of stakeholders though there are no current plans to formally reconvene this group. Rather, the Strike Force’s reports served their purpose by spurring and framing ongoing Commission and industry action to help consumer avoid illegal robocalls.”

In the meantime, robocalls and phone calls made by scammers and thieves continue to plague taxpayers. It’s especially confusing because the IRS has repeatedly advised taxpayers that they will not reach out by phone to resolve taxpayer issues. However, SSA employees do occasionally reach out by telephone for customer-service purposes. Further, the SSA says that in “a few limited special situations” which are “usually” already known to the citizen, an SSA employee may confirm personal information over the phone. 

The SSA advises that if you receive a suspicious call from someone alleging to be from SSA, report that information using 1.800.269.0271.

When it comes to the IRS and taxes, remember that the IRS will never:

  • Call to demand immediate payment over the phone, nor will the agency call about taxes owed without first having mailed you a bill.
  • Threaten to immediately bring in local police or other law-enforcement groups to have you arrested for not paying.
  • Demand that you pay taxes without allowing you to question or appeal the amount they say you owe.
  • Require you to use a specific payment method for your taxes, such as a prepaid debit card, gift card, or wire transfer.
  • Ask for credit or debit card numbers over the phone.

When in doubt, assume it’s a scam. If you’re not sure whether a call is legitimate, hang up and call back using an official number (don’t just use the caller ID number on your phone since those can be spoofed). To reach IRS, call 1.800.829.1040. To contact Social Security, call 1.800.772.1213.

If you know for sure that it’s a scam, don’t engage with scammers or thieves, even if you want to tell them that you know it’s a scam, or you think that you can beat them. Just hang up. You can find more tips on protecting yourself from identity-theft-related tax fraud here.

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Kelly Erb is a tax attorney, tax writer and podcaster.

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