FBI warns of government-impersonation scams — what you need to know

A police officer seated at a desk speaking on a landline telephone.
(Image credit: Photographee.eu/Shutterstock)

The FBI yesterday (March 7) issued a public service announcement warning Americans about scams in which crooks pretend to be government or law-enforcement officials and try to scare victims into coughing up cash or providing valuable personal information.

Such scams have been going on for years. They usually involve a phone call or email in which someone claiming to be from the IRS, FBI or another agency tells you that you're about to be arrested or punished for some imaginary infraction — and that you need to pay a fine or provide information such as your Social Security number.

It's not clear why the FBI is issuing this warning now, other than there are "ongoing widespread fraud schemes" of this nature. However, such scams are now as common as they've ever been.

How government-impersonation scams work

"Scammers will use an urgent and aggressive tone, refusing to speak to or leave a message with anyone other than their targeted victim; and will urge victims not to tell anyone else, including family, friends, or financial institutions, about what is occurring," the FBI warned.

"Payment is demanded in various forms, with the most prevalent being prepaid cards, wire transfers, and cash, sent by mail or inserted into cryptocurrency ATMs. Victims are asked to read prepaid card numbers over the phone or text a picture of the card."

If you receive one of these calls, the FBI said, you may be told that you have failed to report for jury duty, that you have missed a court date, that there is a warrant out for your arrest or that you owe taxes. In these cases, you're often asked to pay a fine using the methods above.

Another variant involves being told that someone has committed a crime using your name — and that to clear yourself, you have to tell the caller your full name, address, date of birth and Social Security number. 

Those just happen to be the four factors with which you can steal someone's identity. This scam also isn't terribly different from the "Social Security" scam in which a caller tells you your identity has been stolen and to verify your identity over the phone.

The FBI also warned that scammers might send text messages to mobile phones notifying phone users that their passports or drivers' licenses need to be renewed. 

The FBI didn't provide further details on that, but it's likely that the text messages would include links that take you to phishing pages mocked up to look like official forms in which you'll be asked to provide your name, date of birth, address, Social Security number and so on.

Government agencies won't call you

Overall, you need to remember that the government notifies citizens by snail mail or in person. 

If it's a routine matter, you will get a letter notifying you that you have missed jury duty, need to appear in court or owe back taxes. You may or may not get a letter notifying you that your driver's license needs to be renewed, depending on the state. 

If it's a more urgent matter, law enforcement officers will come visit you at your home or workplace in a manner friendly or otherwise. 

As the FBI says in the advisory, "NO legitimate law enforcement or government official will request payment via prepaid cards or cryptocurrency ATM. Never give personally identifying information to anyone without verifying the person is who they say they are."

What to do if you fall for a government impersonator

If you end up falling for one of these scams, your recovery options are unfortunately limited. 

Your chances of getting money back depends how you paid the "fine." Regular credit cards give you the best chance; prepaid cards and gift cards are more like cash, but call the card issuer anyway.

As for cryptocurrency, wire transfers to overseas banks or cash, those are usually gone the moment they leave your hands. Nevertheless, you should still file a report with the FBI's own Internet Crime Complaint Center.

If you provided personal information such as your date of birth or Social Security number, you'll need to get proactive. 

First, follow our instructions on how to set up a fraud alert with the Big Three credit-reporting agencies. Second, if you're not about to buy a new house or new car, consider instituting credit freezes with the Big Three. Last, consider paying for one of the best identity-theft-protection services, which will alert to you to identity theft and help you recover from it.

Paul Wagenseil

Paul Wagenseil is a senior editor at Tom's Guide focused on security and privacy. He has also been a dishwasher, fry cook, long-haul driver, code monkey and video editor. He's been rooting around in the information-security space for more than 15 years at FoxNews.com, SecurityNewsDaily, TechNewsDaily and Tom's Guide, has presented talks at the ShmooCon, DerbyCon and BSides Las Vegas hacker conferences, shown up in random TV news spots and even moderated a panel discussion at the CEDIA home-technology conference. You can follow his rants on Twitter at @snd_wagenseil.