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Elder Scams – Social Security Edition

Yes, I realize there has been a lot of Social Security talk at this blog lately but it is the majority of retirement income for most of us and therefore of crucial importance.

Today's story, however, is different from politicians trying to hijack Social Security for their rich friends on Wall Street. This is about a more ordinary kind of crook stealing people's monthly benefit. This recent news report from the ABC affiliate in Baltimore succinctly explains how the scam works.

If for some reason you can't view this video, here's a good print explanation from CNN:

”In a new scam targeting seniors and the disabled, identity thieves are fraudulently rerouting Social Security benefits to their own bank accounts and prepaid debit cards.

“It's pretty straightforward: Identity thieves get their hands on the personal information they need, like a full name and bank account number. Then they contact the Social Security Administration and request that payments be rerouted to their own accounts.”

How do scammers get that information to reroute Social Security checks? In September, Patrick J. O'Carroll Jr., the inspector general of the Social Security Administration (SSA), explained during a Congressional hearing:

”Many of these fraud schemes begin with a phone call or email announcing that you have won a lottery, but you must first send money or provide your bank account information so the company can deposit your winnings.

“The truth is, no legitimate company will make an unsolicited call asking for money upfront in exchange for additional winnings; or for personal information like a Social Security number or bank account number.”

Mr. O'Carroll made an additional warning in a recent fraud advisory issued from his office:

”In the most recent scam, identity thieves pose as government officials in an attempt to convince you to provide personal and financial information. They may claim to be SSA employees - or FEMA employees, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy - and ask for Social Security numbers and bank information to 'make sure' that you can receive your benefits.”

Now, you may think you would not fall for these scams but the fact is the majority of fraud victims (maybe 80 percent) are people age 65 and older.

Just as I was beginning to write this post yesterday, an email arrived from Cop Car of Cop Car's Beat with a link to a story explaining why old people so often fall for this stuff:

”One explanation may lie in a brain region that serves as a built-in crook detector. Called the anterior insula, this structure - which fires up in response to the face of an unsavory character - is less active in older people, possibly making them less cagey than younger folks, a new study finds.”

I'm not sure I buy the idea of a crook detector built into our brains, let alone that it works less well in elders, but you can read about it here if you want to know more about the study. I'm waiting for additional research.

Back to this growing scam to re-route Social Security check deposits.

Amazingly, it takes only a single phone call to the Social Security Administration to change the account to which your check is deposited. In the past couple of months there have been Congressional hearings about this and how to fix it. New York Senator Charles Schumer issued this statement:

"It shouldn't take just one phone call and a scrap of information for a thief to reroute Social Security payments to a fake bank account. Social Security is a lifeline to seniors, and a thief shouldn't be able to sever that line with a snap of their finger."

He's right but it is still going on. So while we wait for Congress and/or the Social Security Administration to implement a solution, here's my advice:

  1. Never respond to people you don't know who ask for financial information by telephone. Your answer to such requests should be an automatic no and an immediate hang up

  2. In the case of email, delete the message without responding

And here is something you can do now – block electronic access to your Social Security account. As that SSA webpage notes – this is important:

”When you do this, no one, including you, will be able to see or change your personal information on the Internet or through our automated telephone service.”

There may be good reasons you do not want to do that, but the option is there.

There is no story at The Elder Storytelling Place today.


I'd like to think I'd never respond to come request like that, but who knows what will happen in the future, should I live long enough to get cloudy in the head.

My bank statement is ready on-line and I just tried logging in to my account. I recently changed my name and password and I must have copied it wrong because it doesn't work.

I needed to fill out a bank form on-line to change my password. I had to fill in my full SS number, even though I understand you only have to give the last four digits for ID purposes. Do banks have a different law governing the SS number? I tried using the last 4 digits and was unable to continue.

If I block my SS number electronically will that mean that I won't be able to log in to my bank if I make an error again? These are questions that need to be answered.

Run to the library and find the January 2013 edition of Consumers Reports.

Five pages (25-27): "Protecting Mom and Dad's Money".

It'll scare you - as it did me!

Here's a link to that Consumer Reports article:

Ronni, I can't get that "SSA webpage" that you mention near the end. Is it just me, or...?

I don't know what to tell you, Nikki. It's working fine from here.


You better call your bank ASAP! Something smells fishy (or phisy) to me.

When anyone thinks they are working online with a bank - you need to see the 'http' change to 'https'. Also there is always some other indication that the site is now secured and your data is somewhat protected.

Remember, too, that the banks do NOT email mail you for any of this kind of data - if they do it is a clear sign something is NOT right. Call the bank to ensure.

Darlene, hope this helps . . .

I'd swear my "crook detector" didn't even kick in until a few years ago. Now it's like I'm overcompensating for being so naive and gullible when I was younger. It's no fun feeling that everyone is out to take advantage of you.

I'm always interested in these studies that link brain and neurological sites to behaviors. I don't necessarily agree that simply a "positive outlook" makes older people more susceptible -- think there are likely other more appropriate terms or personal backgrounds/traits that might account for individual's susceptibility. Would like to know more about the older individuals in their study. They need to investigate further.

The individuals I've read extensive accounts about who've been scammed, often have motivations that override their common sense judgements, ability to reason logically, especially with the lure of money -- that goes well beyond visual recognition of shifty untrustworthy looking people -- but think it's likely to just be a factor and maybe only for some.

Thanks for the SS blocking link as I hadn't known that specific info -- haven't examined the site to know what all is there, much less how incredibly easy changing automatic deposits could be, or that it could even be accomplished by a simple phone call.

I agree that further research/investigation is needed before concluding that elders are more susceptible to scams. It always bothers me when elders are lumped together and categorized simply by age. Personally, my scam detector is working just fine and I expect that it will continue to do so unless I start losing my marbles in general. I've developed a healthy degree of skepticism in my almost-76 years (a career in the field of alcohol/drug rehab and marriage to a former law enforcement officer probably helped).

One method of avoiding being scammed by phone is to use Caller ID. If I don't recognize a caller's name or number, I don't pick up the phone (leaving a name or number is an almost nonexistent practice among scammers!). There is simply NO way that I will give out my SSN, DOB or other personal data to someone at the other end of a phone line unless I place the call and know who I'm talking to. I realize that no protective measure is 100% foolproof, but awareness and taking reasonable precautions can go a long way.

This is late and Yellowstone probably won't see it, but if she/he does I want to thank them and assure them that I do know all of the good info. they passed on. I was trying to log into my own account on the bank's log in page. I called the bank and was assured that I did have to give my SS number and my account was locked until I did. I needed to get to my account that day so I consented to giving my SS number as the bank Representative was on line with me the entire time. It is a secured sight with the closed lock, but, as Ronni pointed out, banks do get hacked.

I complained to the bank specialist and asked them to change the rules regarding SS. If you only have to give the last 4 digits of your credit card number (For the banks protection more than for yours), why is it necessary to give all 9 digits of your SS number? She assured me she would pass the information on.

(It was just me, evidently. That link works fine now.)

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