If you own a phone in America, you've gotten the calls. Your Social Security number has been frozen. There's a warrant out for your arrest. You owe the IRS for back taxes. And the only way to resolve the problem is to pay, right away, over the phone, with a gift card.
Reports of such "government impostor" telephone scams hit a record 46,600 in May 2019, according to figures released yesterday (July 1) by the Federal Trade Commission. The second-highest month was March 2019; April 2019 was in third place.
The FTC has already compiled 176,259 reports of fake-government-agency scam calls from January through May, and if that rate keeps up, 2019 will have about 420,000 reports — by far the highest yearly number on record. The previous record was 2016, when 277,860 government-impostor scam calls were reported for the entire year.
You may not fall, or think you won't fall, for these scams. But enough people do — about 6 percent of people who pick up the calls, according to the FTC — that it's well worth it for the scammers, who net an average of $960 from each of their victims.
These victims aren't all elderly. People under 60 report being scammed more often than those over 60, although the amount of money lost goes up with age.
The scammers can be pretty convincing. The calls often lead with a scary recorded message that urges you to connect to an operator, who then has his or her routine down pat and tells you that you must pay immediately to avoid prosecution. The caller ID will often show that the call comes from the appropriate agency, but don't believe it — spoofing caller ID is as easy as checking your email.
Fortunately, there are a couple of telltale signs that let you know you're dealing with a scammer.
• Government agencies NEVER call you to inform you that you're in trouble. No matter whether they're the Social Security Administration, the IRS, the FBI, the CIA or your local police or sheriff's department, they will either send you a formal letter or send someone to your home or workplace.
• Government agencies NEVER ask you to pay via gift cards or wire transfers. That's true of fines, fees, back taxes or indeed any payment at all. They also won't ask you to pay over the phone. If the caller asks you to pay with a gift card, it's dead certain it's a scam.
If you have time, you should report the scam call to the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint. The agency won't be able to track down the call immediately — most of the numbers are spoofed and the callers are often overseas — but the information you provide will help the FTC and FBI build up a case.