One of the most common scams in the U.S. and Canada today involves callers pretending to be government officials. Some claim to be tax officials and representatives from the Social Security Administration or Service Canada; others claim to be law enforcement officers and threaten legal consequences. All of them use fear and intimidation to trick victims into turning over personal information or money, often in the form of gift cards.
A new investigative study by Better Business Bureau (BBB) finds that while the number of government scam reports has fluctuated, scams have become more diverse and more sophisticated. In addition, many scammers have taken advantage of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic by posing as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officials, Internal Revenue Service representatives who can expedite economic impact payments or contact tracers employed with local government agencies.
The investigative study — Government Impostor Scams: Reports Decrease, Scammers Pivot for New Opportunities, BBB Study Reveals — highlights the risk of this common but costly fraud. Read the full study at BBB.org/FakeGov.
A recent AARP survey found that 44% of people in the U.S. have been contacted by one of these impersonators. Law enforcement officials have received hundreds of thousands of complaints. Complaints to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report $450 million in losses since 2015.
Many of these scams involve robocalls and most commonly originate from India, where call center expertise is plentiful.
“Government impostor scams are constantly evolving, and they prey on people with threats of being arrested if money is not paid or personal information provided,” said Michelle L. Corey, BBB St. Louis president and CEO. “Consumers need to know how to recognize and avoid this upsetting and costly fraud.”
In 2019, BBB reports about scammers impersonating tax officials dropped sharply while reports about Social Security Administration (SSA) impersonators quadrupled in the U.S. Complaints about fake calls from Service Canada likewise have increased in the first six months of 2020.
In many cases, scammers insist they are law enforcement officers and threaten to arrest people immediately if they do not pay money, usually with gift cards. They may tell consumers their Social Security number has been associated with a crime or may threaten to deport recent immigrants or arrest people for missing jury duty.
A St. Louis woman told BBB in June 2019 she received two robocalls on the same day that both purported to be from “Social Security.” The second one connected her with a live person, who told the woman her Social Security number had been compromised and asked for her full name and the last four digits of her Social Security number. When she provided a fake name and number, the caller told her her Social Security number had been linked to crime reports in El Paso, Texas, and told her she needed to pay nearly $10,000. The woman made the caller aware that she knew it was a scam, and the caller hung up.
Other scam callers lure victims with the promise of a “free” government grant, which they claim will be awarded if the victim pays a fee with a gift card or prepaid debit card. In reality, there is no grant.
Impostor calls from India must first go through a “gateway carrier” in the U.S. These carriers often provide both “spoofed” phone numbers that appear on caller ID and return pyeahhone call numbers for voicemails that appear to go to locations in the U.S. or Canada. The Department of Justice recently sued two of these carriers while the FTC and Federal Communication Commission issued warning letters to others. As a result, robocalls and individual calls coming from India have declined drastically over the last several months.
Other law enforcement efforts in the U.S. have led to the arrest of dozens of Indian nationals for laundering money related to these scams. However, the study notes that cases are rarely prosecuted in India.
The report recommends:
- Efforts to prevent fraud calls to the U.S. and Canada have shown promising results, and the telecom industry should continue efforts to stop illegal calls and to end caller ID spoofing. Legislation may be needed to address the problem of gateway carriers.
- The government of India should do more to prosecute and extradite those operating frauds from that country.
- Law enforcement should continue to take action against scammers who are physically present in the U.S. and Canada.
- Efforts by many retailers and banks to question people buying gift cards have had limited success in stopping the purchase of gift cards to pay scammers. The gift card industry and retailers should explore additional ways to stem fraudulent use of their products.
How to complain about government impostor scams:
- IRS: The Internal Revenue Service advises people to fill out the “IRS Impersonation Scam” form on the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Impersonation’s website, tigta.gov, or call TIGTA at 1-800-366-4484.
- Social Security: The Office of the Inspector General, Social Security Administration (SSA IG) has its own online form to take complaints about frauds impersonating the SSA.
- Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre: In Canada, contact CAFC about all government impersonation scams at 1-888-495-8501 or online.
- Federal Trade Commission: 877-FTC Help or ftc.gov.
- Internet Crime Complaint Center: https://www.ic3.gov/complaint/splash.aspx.
- Contact your cellphone carrier, which may offer free services such as scam call identification and blocking, ID monitoring, a second phone number to give out to businesses so you can use your main number for close friends or a new number if you get too many spam calls.
- File a report with BBB Scam Tracker.