Social Security fraud boosted by COVID-19 fears

CPAs can spread the word on the newest version of a longtime fraud ploy.
By Sarah Ovaska

Social Security fraud was already a problem when the global COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States early this spring.

But now fraudsters have added brand-new ploys involving the public health crisis to exploit unsuspecting victims.

CPAs can help their clients, and the public, by using their esteemed positions in the community to distribute information about the prevalence and occurrence of these types of frauds, said Randy Wolverton, CPA/CFF, who is a retired FBI special agent and serves on the AICPA’s Forensic and Litigation Services (FLS) Fraud Task Force.

“The reputation of CPAs in general is very high and very strong,” Wolverton said. “We need to train CPAs to be much more aware of certain frauds and tips to convey to clients.”

Below are ways CPAs can learn about scams involving Social Security benefits and how to inform others about the risks.

Know that COVID-19 gives fraudsters a new hook. The novel coronavirus pandemic has led to a new wave of fraudulent attempts in recent weeks capitalizing on people’s anxieties and fears.

Social Security officials issued a warning to the public in late March about fraudulent letters going out through the U.S. Postal System that threaten suspension of Social Security benefits as a result of coronavirus-related office closures.

The letters contain phone numbers that, when dialed, direct victims to provide personal information or make payments using gift cards, wire transfers, or cryptocurrency or even by mailing cash to restore benefits, according to the March news release from Gail Ennis, the inspector general of the Social Security Administration.

This, of course, is all false. The federal agency has closed its offices to in-person visits to thwart the spread of COVID-19, but benefits continue to be processed as usual and questions can be handled via the phone.  

“Social Security will not suspend or decrease Social Security benefit payments or Supplemental Security Income payments due to the current COVID-19 pandemic,” Ennis’s release stated. “Communication you receive that says SSA will do so is a scam, whether you receive it by letter, text, email, or phone call.” 

CPAs can reach out beyond their client lists and offer to hold information sessions discussing fraud related to COVID-19 with members of their faith communities or other community groups, Wolverton said. Those educational efforts can happen in virtual settings, given the importance of social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The options are there for CPAs to step up and become more proactive in educating not just their clients but their communities in general,” Wolverton said.

Understand the scope. The current public health crisis isn’t the first time authorities have raised alarms about people being swindled out of money or assets by fraudsters claiming to be with the Social Security Administration.

The federal agency that distributes retirement benefits to former American workers or their survivors received more than 250,000 reports of fraudulent attempts since November, when it launched an online portal to report fraud attempts. And those were just the complaints that people took the time to report.

In 2019, victims lost $153 million to people posing as government officials, the bulk of which were impersonations of Social Security staff, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

No one with the Social Security Administration will demand fees or fines or threaten a person with benefit suspension, arrest, or legal actions, agency officials have said. Nor would anyone from the Social Security Administration ask for payment under any circumstances.

"The first thing you should know is that we continue to pay benefits," Andrew Saul, the commissioner of the Social Security Administration, said in a news release. "Be aware that scammers may try to trick you into thinking the pandemic is stopping your Social Security payments but that is not true. Don’t be fooled.”

The agency suggests people “Slam the Scam” by hanging up on anyone making an unsolicited call and purporting to be from the Social Security Administration. Incidents can then be reported directly to the Social Security officials via an online reporting form.

Remember that older and isolated people are especially at risk. Frauds that involve impersonation of government agents are especially effective with older adults because of vulnerabilities they have at that age and how much they depend on the retirement benefits that are a financial lifeline in later years, Wolverton said.

Many at later stages of life are not as adept as they once were at picking up on scams because of cognitive declines or tendencies to be trusting of those they encounter. Older people who are isolated are especially at risk, as they are less likely to run the scenario by a trusted friend or family member, he said.

In addition, Social Security is vital to many elderly people, and the fear of losing those monthly deposits can be unsettling.

“Social Security is so important to people in the 60-, 70-, 80-year-old age groups,” Wolverton said. “They depend on it and trust the Social Security Administration.”

Knowing this, fraudulent callers may reach out to a person’s home or mobile phone number, claiming an issue with existing Social Security benefits. Victims can fall prey to the scam by either handing over personal information or agreeing to send money to resolve whatever the concocted issue is.

CPAs should talk to their clients about these types of fraud patterns, to make them aware that there are people who will go to great lengths to try to dupe them, Wolverton said. It can be helpful to talk to younger clients as well, if they have older parents or relatives they look out for.

Some bad actors, for example, look for their victims in the white pages, which are populated with the names, addresses, and phone numbers of a largely older population that still uses the phone directories, Wolverton said. Having conversations with clients about this may prompt some to consider delisting their information to cut off one way scammers seek out victims.

CPAs can also help by devoting a section of their firm websites to warnings about schemes that may target people’s money, especially for clients of an older generation, Wolverton said.

Other ways include routinely mailing reminders to clients that government officials from agencies like the Social Security Administration will never make cold calls asking for personally identifiable information or money to restart benefits.

Wolverton suggests also including information about ways to report any suspected fraud, such as the website maintained by the Social Security Administration.

The best thing CPAs can do is to educate themselves on fraud, and then relay that information to clients and others who turn to accountants for advice. One place to do this is the AICPA’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) forensic and valuation resources website.  

“It’s critical that CPAs learn as much as they can about current fraud schemes,” Wolverton said.

For more news and reporting on the coronavirus and how CPAs can handle challenges related to the pandemic, visit the JofA’s coronavirus resources page.

Sarah Ovaska-Few is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a  JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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