Pretty much every successful scam depends on misplaced trust. To get money out of you, scammers have to get you to trust them, and one of the quickest ways for them to do that is to pose as someone else. These fraudsters can assume many roles: a relative calling in a panic after a car accident, tech support calling to warn you about a computer virus, or even a new love you met through online dating.
Perhaps the sneakiest scammers of all are the ones who impersonate government officials. When you receive a call or message that seems to come from a government agency, your first instinct is likely to cooperate without asking any questions. Unfortunately, when you’re dealing with a con artist, that’s precisely the wrong thing to do.
To avoid falling for this trick, you need to know how to recognize a government imposter scam when you see it. Here’s a rundown of some common ones to watch out for — and the warning signs that give them away.
Types of Government Imposter Scams
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) blog is a treasure trove of information about all types of scams, including government imposter scams. Here are some of the most common ones that show up on the site.
1. Sweepstakes Scams
In this scam, a so-called government official contacts you with great news: You’ve won a major prize in a national lottery. (There is no such thing as a lottery run by the U.S. federal government, but the scammer is counting on you being too excited to notice.) The con artist may claim to be from the FTC or a fake government agency, such as the “National Sweepstakes Bureau.” They may even have a phone number or address that appears to be a real government office.
Once the caller has your attention, they tell you that to collect your prize, you must pay some money up front. They might claim this is for taxes, service charges, or to “insure delivery” of your winnings. Usually, they tell you to wire the money — and right away, or you’ll miss out on the chance to claim your prize. Sometimes, to make this request sound more legitimate, they tell you to send the money to a real insurance company, such as Lloyd’s of London.
Of course, the number they give you to wire the money to isn’t really for Lloyd’s of London, or any government agency. It goes straight into the fraudster’s account, and they disappear with the money and leave you waiting for a windfall that will never arrive.
2. Unclaimed Property Scams
A variant of the sweepstakes scam is a call, letter, or email claiming the government has found missing money in your name. It could be an inheritance, an abandoned bank account, or an unclaimed lottery prize. The scammers often claim to work for your state’s unclaimed funds office or the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA). Both of these are real organizations, and the con artists often fake imitations of their letterhead or “spoof” their email address or phone number to make their communications look real.
However, unlike the real organizations, these con artists may say you’ll need to pay some money up front before you can claim your money. In other cases, they request personal information — banking details, credit card numbers, or your Social Security Number (SSN) — that they can then use for identity theft. They often create pressure by saying you must act quickly to avoid losing your funds, and they sometimes warn that the transaction needs to be kept confidential.
NAUPA director David Millby, in an interview with Stateline, says he received hundreds of emails from targets of this scam in 2016. In the same article, Massachusetts Assistant Treasurer Mark Bracken reports hearing from some victims who have spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to recover funds that didn’t really exist.
3. Debt Collection Scams
Sweepstakes scams work by making you so happy and excited that you don’t stop to think critically. A debt collection scam plays on your emotions in the opposite way: by sending you into a panic.
In this racket, someone calls or sends you an official-looking letter claiming to be a debt collector who’s connected in some way with the government. It could be your local sheriff’s office, the FTC, or another government agency. This “official” claims that you owe a debt and must pay it immediately or face arrest.
Typically, these fake debt collectors ask you to wire the money or load it onto a rechargeable money card. These two untraceable means of payment are perfect for con artists, but real debt collectors would never use them. They also aren’t allowed to threaten you with arrest.
4. IRS Scams
A variant of the debt collection scam is scammers who claim to be from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). They say you owe a tax debt that you must pay immediately, usually through a wire transfer or prepaid debit card. Then they threaten you with arrest, deportation if you’re a recent immigrant, loss of a business, or loss of your driver’s license if you don’t pay up.
These phony IRS agents know lots of tricks to make their threats seem legit. They often use spoofed phone numbers that make it look like the call is coming from the IRS, or send fake emails from what appears to be an IRS address. They may also know the last four digits of your SSN or give you a fake IRS badge number. Sometimes, if you don’t pay up, you get a second call that’s supposedly from the police or the Department of Motor Vehicles — again with a spoofed number to back up the claim.
However, the real IRS doesn’t operate this way. If you owe back taxes, it will contact you about the debt by mail, not by phone or email. It won’t ask for a credit card number over the phone, and it will never ask you to pay your debt by wire transfer or prepaid card.
5. Immigration Scams
IRS scams aren’t the only kind that target recent immigrants and scare them with the threat of deportation. Some con artists call claiming to be from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Others use a similar-sounding name, like “Immigration Service,” which isn’t a real government agency.
These fraudsters then claim you owe money to the government. They may give a bogus reason, such as a “government-funded scholarship” you have to pay for, or they may simply say you owe money without giving any details. They insist you pay immediately by — of course — wire transfer or prepaid card. If you don’t, they claim, you’ll lose any chance at getting a visa and possibly be arrested or deported at once.
Like the IRS scammers, these folks have lots of information that makes their calls sound genuine. For instance, they often know your name and address, and even what kind of visa you’ve applied for. They also use spoofed numbers to make it look like the real USCIS is calling; some even have faked phone trees, so if you call them back, it sounds like you’ve reached the real USCIS. The only way you can tell the call is fake is that they’re asking for money over the phone — something the real USCIS, and other government agencies, will never do.
6. Social Security Scams
This scam is a little different from the others. While the scammers sometimes ask for money, what they’re usually after is your SSN for purposes of identity theft.
The con artists call you claiming to be from the Social Security Administration (SSA) and claim your SSN has been compromised in some way. One variant of the scam says your SSN is “blocked” because it has been linked to a crime, often in Texas, involving drugs or sending money out of the country illegally. Another says that someone has used your SSN to apply for credit cards, and you could lose your benefits. The fraudsters have often spoofed the SSA’s real phone number to make their claims seem more credible.
Once they have you upset and worried, the scammers ask you to “confirm” your SSN. Sometimes, they also request a fee to “reactivate” your blocked SSN or get a new one.
In some versions of the scam, they follow up with even more dire threats. One version warns that your bank account is about to be seized and you need to withdraw all your money. They promise to help you “keep it safe,” often by putting it all onto gift cards and giving them the codes. Another version of the scam call, which you can listen to on the FTC blog, says you will be arrested if you don’t cooperate.
7. Medicare Scams
These scams target older Americans who are on Medicare. The FTC alerted consumers to one Medicare scam in the fall of 2018, shortly after the government announced that it would be sending out new Medicare cards that did not have the user’s SSN printed on them. Con artists seized on this news and started calling older Americans, claiming to be Medicare representatives. They told their victims they needed to either pay a fee for their new cards or “verify” their personal information, such as their SSN and bank account details.
However, this was by no means the first scam involving Medicare. According to AARP, cons of this sort pop up during every Medicare enrollment period. The so-called Medicare representatives tell victims a variety of different stories, such as:
- They need to provide their Medicare number and credit card information over the phone to sign up for coverage.
- They must sign up for a Part D Prescription Drug plan to keep their Medicare coverage.
- They need to confirm their billing information, such as bank or credit card numbers, to keep their coverage.
- Their Medicare accounts have been compromised, and they need to protect their savings by moving money out of their bank into a “safer account” — which is under the scammer’s control.
Signs of a Government Imposter Scam
The scammers who impersonate government agents are clever. They make themselves look like the real thing by using spoofed phone numbers, fake letterhead, and personal information it seems only a government official would have.
However, there are a few telltale signs that their messages are fake. For example:
- They Cold-Call You. When real government agencies need to contact you, they usually start by sending a letter, not calling you out of the blue. The IRS, in particular, always uses snail mail for official messages. Any time someone calls you without warning claiming to be from the government, it should put you on your guard.
- They Ask for Your SSN. The IRS, SSA, and other government agencies will never call you and ask you for your SSN. In fact, the FTC warns against giving your SSN to anyone who contacts you, no matter who or why. You should only give out your number by phone when you initiated the call and know for certain that the person on the other end is legit.
- They Ask You to Wire Money. According to the FTC, anyone who tells you to send money by wire transfer is a scammer, guaranteed. The same goes for people who want you to send money in some other untraceable form, such as cash or a gift card.
- They Insist You Act Immediately. Government agencies rarely do anything in a hurry, even when you want them to. So when a so-called government agent says you must act at once to claim a prize, pay a debt, or avoid arrest, that’s a sure sign they’re not the real deal.
How to Avoid Government Imposter Scams
The FTC offers several tips to make sure you don’t fall victim to a government imposter scam. Some of these are the same common-sense rules you should use to avoid any type of scam, while others are more specific.
- Don’t Trust Names and Numbers. Never assume that callers are who they say they are. Anyone can give an official-sounding name or title over the phone. A phone number that shows a call is coming from Washington, D.C. isn’t proof, either, since spoofing technology is common and easy to use. Even a letterhead that looks genuine could easily be faked.
- Call the Real Number. If you aren’t sure whether the person calling you is really from a government agency, it’s easy to check. Say you’ll call back, and hang up the phone. Look up the real number for that agency, dial it, and go through the phone tree until you can talk to an operator. Then describe the call you got and ask if it was real. In most cases, the answer will be no.
- Don’t Use Money Transfer Services. Scammers usually instruct you to send money through a wire transfer or prepaid debit card. These forms of payment are untraceable, so there’s next to no chance of undoing the transfer or tracking down the recipient. The FTC recommends against using these forms of payment with anyone you don’t know.
- Don’t Pay for a Prize. It would kind of defeat the purpose of a sweepstake if you had to pay to collect your winnings. If you’ve won a prize in a real lottery or sweepstake, you’ll never have to pay insurance, taxes, or shipping charges up front. Of course, you can’t win anything in a contest you never entered, so if someone says you’ve won a prize when you don’t remember buying a ticket, that should be a red flag right away.
- Don’t Give Out Personal Information. As a general rule, you should never give out any sensitive personal information unless you’re absolutely sure who you’re dealing with. That includes your bank account details, credit card number, and SSN. The FTC says you shouldn’t even give the last four digits of your SSN to someone who has contacted you, rather than you calling them.
- Block Telemarketing Calls. Putting your phone on the national Do Not Call Registry won’t necessarily stop scammers from calling you. These people are breaking the law anyway, so they’re not going to worry about making a few illegal phone calls. However, registering your phone will reduce the number of unwanted calls you get overall so that any unexpected call will stand out. It’s easier to be cautious and take your time to deal with a suspicious-sounding call when you’re not getting dozens of them every day.
How to Report Scammers
There’s one more thing the FTC urges you to do if you get a call or message from a government imposter: report it. You can use the FTC’s Complaint Assistant to file a report about any kind of imposter scam. From the main site, click on “Scams and Rip-offs,” then “Imposter Scams.” Be prepared to provide information about:
- How you were contacted
- The date and time you were contacted
- The name of the government agency the imposter used
- What the scammers told you
- How much money they asked for and what payment method they said to use
- Their address, email, or phone number, if you have it (even if it was a fake or spoofed number, law enforcement agents might be able to track it)
- Any other details about the scam
Other government agencies are also interested in hearings about scammers who impersonate their agents. For instance, if you receive an IRS scam email, you can forward it to [email protected] If you get a fake call from USCIS, call the real USCIS at 1-800-375-5283 to report it.
No list of scams can ever really be complete. Scammers are resourceful, and they keep coming up with new ploys as fast as people can catch on to their old ones. This list covers the most common government imposter rackets of today, but there are sure to be new ones tomorrow that approach the same tricks from a different angle.
To be on your guard against these new scams when they pop up, check out our articles about other types of fraud, such as credit card fraud, mortgage relief scams, and miracle health cures. The more you know about different types of fraud, the easier it will be to spot these schemes when they reappear dressed in new clothing.
Another way to stay informed is to follow the FTC’s blog. It’s updated regularly with the latest ploys con artists are using to separate you from your money. You’ll also learn about problems with products and other problems that affect consumers.
Has a government impersonator ever contacted you? What happened?