How To Spot and Avoid Social Security Scams (Expert Tips)

Social Security scams are on the rise. Knowing how to protect yourself from these phishing scams can save your identity — and your retirement funds.
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Social Security programs provide stability for many individuals and families. In some cases, government-assisted benefits — like retirement, disability, survivors benefits, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) — are seniors' only source of income. The U.S. Social Security Administration also handles Medicare, a health insurance program for people aged 65+.

Unfortunately, criminals recognize that seniors are vulnerable to cyberscams. A successful attack can result in financial loss, legal troubles, loss of benefits, and even identity theft. Emotional distress can also be quite damaging, especially to retirees. The nature of potential targets is what makes Social Security scams so insidious.

Adopting secure online habits and using a strong identity theft prevention service is essential. Keep reading to learn how to recognize and prevent Social Security scams.

In this article
What are Social Security scams?
How do Social Security scams work?
What scammers can do with your SSN
The warning signs of a successful Social Security scam
What to do if a criminal has your Social Security number
Social Security scam FAQs
Bottom line

What are Social Security scams?

Social Security scams are essentially phishing schemes designed to steal your money or sensitive information. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) dubbed them "the number one government imposter scam in the U.S." According to FTC reports, in 2022, consumers lost more than $104.5 million to phishing attacks.

Scammers often target older individuals and retirees for a few reasons:

  • They believe seniors are the wealthiest group of people.
  • Seniors are generally considered less tech-savvy than some other groups.
  • Seniors are usually less skeptical of official-sounding communication.

That said, anyone can fall victim to a Social Security scam. Criminals will even exploit the emotional vulnerability of people grieving the loss of a loved one to steal their survivors benefits. Other "convenient" categories are immigrants and individuals unfamiliar with U.S. regulations.

How do Social Security scams work?

No matter how creative, all Social Security scams have the same basic anatomy. Learning to recognize the essential steps can help you stop criminals in their tracks.

Here's what you need to remember:

The initial contact

The scam starts with a harmless-looking email, phone call, or text message. Since the fraudster will be impersonating a Social Security Administration (SSA) agent, they probably won’t contact you on social media. You should ignore any messages and calls to action. Also, never click on any links or images.

Building trust

As mentioned, scammers can impersonate SSA personnel. They craft official-looking messages to lull you into a false sense of security. Each message, however, has a specific hook. The endgame is to get you to send an immediate payment, share data, or reveal personally identifiable information. The angle is either through coercion and scare tactics or by enticing you with too-good-to-be-true offers.

Stealing your Social Security number (SSN)

If you follow the instructions in the phishing message, scammers can get your SSN and other private information. From there, they can steal your identity, execute medical fraud, access your bank account, and even commit crimes in your name.

What scammers can do with your SSN

Your SSN helps the government track you for Social Security purposes. It’s also used as a unique identifier in various financial and administrative transactions. These can include opening a bank account, applying for a loan or a job, completing tax returns, getting a passport, and much more.

In other words, your SSN is a valuable piece of information you need to protect. Here’s just a fraction of what scammers can do if they steal it:

  • Identity theft: Your SSN allows criminals to impersonate you. They can get loans in your name, empty your bank account, max out your credit cards, and more. Even worse, they can commit crimes in your name, leaving you to deal with the fallout.
  • Tax fraud: Scammers can use your SSN to file false tax returns, claim false deductions, and get you in trouble with the IRS.
  • Employment fraud: Criminals can apply for jobs with your stolen info. They likely won’t report their income or pay employment taxes. So, you’ll be responsible for their tax liabilities.
  • Government benefits fraud: Scammers can claim government benefits in your name. They can use your SSN to apply for anything from Supplemental Security Income to housing assistance. You will lose these benefits the moment fraudsters claim them.
  • Medical identity theft: Your SSN can also be used to apply for Medicare and Medicaid benefits. If criminals get healthcare services this way, their medical history will be mixed with yours, which can lead to wrong and even dangerous treatments later on.
  • Criminal activity: With your SSN, fraudsters can impersonate you during illegal activities, which can range from parking tickets and traffic violations to serious crimes.

The warning signs of a successful Social Security scam

Unfortunately, you can’t know if someone has your SSN until they misuse it. Here are essential red flags for the most common Social Security scams:

  • You receive someone else’s mail. If you receive physical mail addressed to someone else, you should review it carefully. If it mentions services, loans, withdrawals, wire transfers, or benefits you don’t recognize, you’re probably being scammed.
  • You receive unrequested credit or debit cards in the mail. This indicates that someone has fraudulently opened a line of credit in your name.
  • You receive suspicious notices from the IRS. For example, the IRS informs you that it’s processing your tax returns, and you haven’t filed your taxes yet.
  • You get calls from unknown creditors. You’ll usually receive warnings about missing payments for unfamiliar loans.
  • You keep getting turned down for credit. Identity thieves can damage your credit score, preventing you from getting a line of credit.
  • You are liable for warrants and traffic tickets you didn’t cause. Scammers can provide your info when caught for traffic violations and other illegal activities. This can happen in a different city or even a different state.
  • You notice unrecognized changes on your bank statements. Always review your bank statements for unaccounted changes. Even minor charges could mean someone has access to your account.
  • You discover unknown bank withdrawals. If you see any withdrawals you didn’t make, someone likely has access to your bank account.
  • You get medical bills for services you didn’t receive. If you receive unfamiliar medical bills, you’re likely a victim of medical identity theft.
  • Suspicious W-2s surface. An unfamiliar W-2 indicates that someone got a job using your info. Start monitoring your accounts and credit and invest in an identity theft protection plan.
  • You realize you're missing invoices or bank statements. Scammers can change your bank account info and divert all correspondence to their email address. If your bank suddenly stops communicating with you, act immediately.

What to do if a criminal has your Social Security number

The most important thing is to stay calm and follow this list of actions as quickly as possible:

  1. Change your passwords immediately. Start with your Social Security account and work your way from there. We also recommend using a solid password manager like NordPass. It can help you create complex passwords and keep them all in one secure place.
  2. Enable two-factor authentication. Two-factor authentication (2FA) boosts your security by requiring an extra login step (usually through text messages or email verification). Whenever possible, enable 2FA on your accounts.
  3. Alert your credit card providers. Inform your banking and credit institutions about the scam and have them place fraud alerts on your account. If you have these alerts in place, you might not have to pay for charges made by scammers.
  4. Check your credit report. Review your credit report and look for any new or unauthorized accounts.
  5. Alert the credit bureaus and freeze your credit. Freezing your credit will stop anyone from opening lines of credit in your name.
  6. Inspect your credit and bank statements. Review your bank statements to see if someone has your account information.
  7. Report Social Security fraud or identity theft. Report any fraud to the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) or the Office of the Inspector General.
  8. Run a malware scan. Phishers often employ malware to steal private info from their victims. Use a reliable antivirus program like TotalAV to detect malicious software on your devices.
  9. Protect your identity. We recommend installing good identity theft prevention software on your devices. It can monitor your data and alert you if someone is selling your SSN on the dark web or using it to open new accounts.

The best identity theft prevention services

  • Aura provides premium protection against identity theft and financial fraud. Its Family Plan comes with a private assistant who can help you recover from a successful attack. Aura also includes child protection with SSN alerts and up to $1 million in identity theft insurance.

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  • LifeLock by Norton offers up to $3 million in coverage, identity & SSN alerts, credit and phone takeover monitoring, and much more. One of its unique features is crime monitoring, which alerts you if a crime has been committed in your name.

    Get LifeLock by Norton | Read Our LifeLock by Norton Review

  • Identity Guard offers monitoring options for home titles, the dark web, SSNs, financial accounts, public records like arrests or traffic tickets, and more. It also provides premium credit protection and a password manager.

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Social Security scam FAQs


How can I tell if a letter from Social Security is real?

Look for grammatical errors or awkward wording. Scam letters are seldom personalized — they’ll likely address you as Sir, Madam, User, or Beneficiary. They may pressure you to act quickly or lure you with false deals or benefits. Verify addresses, phone numbers, and contacts before handing over any information. Lastly, the IRS only sends physical letters. If you get an email, phone call, or text claiming to be from the IRS, it likely is a phishing scheme.


What happens if a scammer gets my Social Security number?

With your SSN, a scammer can commit identity theft and steal your money, home, or benefits. Furthermore, they might commit crimes in your name, leaving you to deal with the consequences. They can also sell your SSN on the dark web to other cybercriminals.


Can someone steal my identity with my Social Security number?

Yes, a criminal can steal your identity if they have your Social Security number. Often, they use that unique identifier to access more personal information about you. With that information, they can commit identity theft, open new accounts in your name, commit crimes, or more nefarious acts.

Bottom line

Your SSN is a valuable piece of information you should protect at all costs. If criminals manage to steal it, the consequences can be devastating. Social Security scams can leave you without essential benefits and cost you a lot of money.

Legitimate government agencies will never solicit you for your SSN via email, text, or phone. If you receive such messages or calls, they’re most likely phishing scams. Never share your personally identifiable information, protect your accounts with unique passwords, and use a strong identity theft prevention service for extra security.

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Author Details
Courtney Daybell brings over 15 years of experience in print journalism and holds a B.A. in Communications from Brigham Young University. Her focus has shifted to cyber security, where she specializes in topics such as identity theft protection, password managers, antivirus software, and more.