Ways to Spot, Avoid, and Report Imposter Scams
by Colleen Tressler, Senior Project Manager, FTC – DCBE
October is Crime Prevention Month, and a good time to learn how to spot, avoid, and report imposter scams.
Imposter scams come in many varieties, but work the same way: a scammer pretends to be someone you trust to convince you to send them money.
Starting in 2018, imposter scams topped the list of reports submitted to the Federal Trade Commission’s nationwide Consumer Sentinel database, driven in part by a surge in reports of government imposters.
These scammers pretend to be from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Social Security Administration (SSA), or another government agency. Their goal is to get people to turn over money or personal information. Government imposters were nearly half of the imposter scam reports to the FTC in 2018. People reported losing nearly $488 million in total to all types of imposter scams in 2018—more than any other type of fraud—and reported a median loss of $500.
There’s been a recent surge in scam calls from people pretending to be from the Social Security Administration. These scammers typically tell people their Social Security number has been suspended, or that there is some other problem. They’re hoping people will reveal their Social Security number or pay money to “reactivate” it. In reality, Social Security numbers are never suspended and the SSA will never require you to pay to get one.
If you get a call out of the blue from someone claiming to be from a government agency like the SSA or IRS, asking you for personal information or money, it is most likely a scam. It’s probably a good idea to hang up immediately and report it to the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint.
You might also spot other types of imposter scams, including:
- Tech support scams. These scammers want you to believe your computer has a serious problem, like a virus. They want you to pay for tech support services you don’t need, to fix a problem that doesn’t exist. They often ask you to pay by wiring money, putting money on a gift card, prepaid card or cash reload card, or using a money transfer app because they know those types of payments can be hard to reverse.
- Online dating and romance scams. Millions of people use online dating apps or social networking sites to meet someone. But instead of finding romance, many find a scammer trying to trick them into sending money. In 2018, people reported losing $143 million to romance scams—a higher total than for any other type of scam reported to the FTC. The median reported loss was $2,600, and, for people over 70, it was $10,000.
- Family emergency scams. Scammers may pose as relatives or friends, calling or sending messages to urge you to wire money immediately. They’ll say they need cash to help with an emergency—like getting out of jail, paying a hospital bill, or needing to leave a foreign country. Their goal is to trick you into sending money before you realize it’s a scam.
- Worshipers targeted by gift card scams. This time, scammers pretend to be a pastor, rabbi, priest, imam, or bishop. They ask worshipers for gift card contributions to a worthy cause. They often make their appeals by email, but people sometimes get texts and phone calls, too.
For more information, please visit ftc.gov/imposters.
The Federal Trade Commission works to promote competition, and protect and educate consumers. You can learn more about consumer topics and file a consumer complaint online or by calling 1-877-FTC-HELP (382-4357). Like the FTC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, read our consumer blog, and sign up for free consumer alerts from the FTC at ftc.gov/subscribe.
Colleen Tressler is a senior project manager in the Federal Trade Commission’s Division of Consumer and Business Education. Colleen’s career in the consumer affairs and education arena spans more than 35 years. During that time, she has taken an especially active role in helping to educate consumers about issues that affect their financial well-being. Colleen is responsible for planning, developing, and implementing creative, practical, plain-language, mission-related campaigns. Some of Colleen’s most successful national campaigns deal with consumer credit, identity theft, and privacy issues. Colleen serves on the Board of Directors for the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, and chairs its communications and awards committees. Colleen holds a B.S. in Program Management and Consumer Studies from the University of Maryland, and a Masters in Administrative Science from the Johns Hopkins University.