Is That Social Security Call a Scam?

Have you been getting mysterious but important-sounding phone calls warning you about social security changes? Here's what you need to know—and how to spot the scammers.

Social security is kind of complicated. (Though we tried to simplify it all here.) How much you receive as a benefit is linked to how much you earned throughout your career, when you were born, how old you will be when you start withdrawing funds, what inflation rates are, and other factors.

But one thing is simple: The Social Security Administration (SSA), the arm of the federal government that oversees the national plan for retirees and those experiencing disabilities, isn't making robocalls asking you for your Social Security number and other personally identifiable information (PII). The SSA already knows your SSN. And they want you to protect it. They're also not going to threaten you or say that your number will be suspended or ask for payment in cash or gift cards.

If you pay attention to the many phone calls, letters, and texts you receive, it may seem like the SSA is doing just that. In truth, if someone contacts you and says they are from the SSA, you should be as skeptical as you are of the wrinkle reducers and "magic cleanser" ads that scroll past on your screen.

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"Social security is not going to reach out to you unless they are returning your call," Linda Grant-Smith, CFP, senior financial planner and vice president at Robert W. Baird & Co. in Nashville, tells Health. "If it is an unsolicited call, I just wouldn't engage at all."

Indeed, that's the polite way of saying what the SSA recommends: "Hang up." Yes, that's what official, legit mail from the SSA advises in black and white.

If you set up an account at the SSA website to see what the SSA has calculated as your earnings to date, you'll get a snail mail letter of confirmation. This boilerplate letter just lets you know that someone has created an account with your name and your social security number. (If you haven't, of course, you'll want to report that activity to the SSA.)

The envelope for that letter includes "scam alert" advice. "Scammers are pretending to be government employees. They may threaten you and may demand immediate payment to avoid arrest or other legal action. Do not be fooled!"

In addition to hanging up if you receive a suspicious call (staying on the line only gives a scammer more opportunity to get info from you), the SSA wants you to report the call to them. Whether you have received a phone call, an email, text, or letter that doesn't sound right, let them know using their online form or by calling 800-269-0271.

Of course, the tricky part with all scams is that scammers are getting more sophisticated. A robocall may not fool you, but a live person who takes a friendlier tone can be deceiving. These folks may offer to help with a family member's benefits or help you with an upcoming (fake) deadline. If these calls come when you have recently lost a spouse or otherwise need help, it can feel like a lifesaver.

If you actually do need help from the SSA, call or contact them through their website, not from a number that pops up on your caller ID. Scammers can reroute numbers to look legit.

In 2019 more than 63 million people received social security benefits. That number is increasing over time because people live longer than they did a generation or two ago (a life expectancy of 79 years in 2019, as compared with 62 in 1935), and because more people are retiring each year. As a result, social security is a big part of our lives—but probably not a big part of our legit incoming phone calls.

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