CUYAHOGA COUNTY, Ohio — Many of us are too familiar with scam calls to our cell phones, demanding personal information or payment.
Anthony Monaco, a special agent-in-charge with the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at the Social Security Administration (SSA), said OIG receives hundreds of thousands, sometimes upwards of a million, calls each year, from people reporting they’ve received calls from scammers posing as the SSA.
“It’s pervasive,” Monaco, who runs the Major Case Unit, said.
While those numbers fluctuate over time, Monaco said calls have “really risen” over the last couple of years.
“COVID’s really been a series of kind of surges,” Monaco said. “And so during certain times, they've gone up, they've gone down. But consistently, it's still pretty bad.”
How scammers operate
Monaco said sometimes scammers may have pieces of information about you, or even a complete profile, but sometimes they don’t have any information and may just be guessing. With so many different types of scams out there, it’s hard for investigators to know without diving into a particular one.
“But they're so good at convincing you just with a little piece of information that they know who you are,” Monaco said.
He noted that the SSA used to tell people the agency would never make demands of them by phone, and that it would instead send a letter. While that’s still true, he said scammers are now sending letters as well.
“It's kind of a full court press, but [the SSA will] never threaten to suspend your Social Security number. They’ll never warn you of arrest or legal action. They'll never make demands of you for immediate payment. They'll never make demands of you to send—it sounds kind of odd now, but certainly they're very convincing—to put money in gift cards or or to send a check or to deposit it in some company bank account,” Monaco said. “They'll never ask for prepaid debit cards or internet currency, bitcoins or cryptocurrency, certainly not mailing cash.”
But he recognizes how convincing scammers can be.
“They are so manipulative, and Americans are generally very trusting. You know, we trust our government and we certainly want to be able to trust officials from the Social Security Administration,” Monaco said. “So they take advantage of that trust and to manipulate people.”
If you realize the call is a scam call, Monaco urged people just to hang up.
“There's other actions you can take as well, like calling your credit, your bank or the credit bureaus and then putting credit holds on, all sorts of things you can do to protect yourself,” Monaco said.
What are they looking for?
Sheryl Harris, director of consumer affairs for Cuyahoga County, said that scammers are after two types of information or outcomes: cash, or personal information, such as “Social Security numbers, bank account numbers, passwords for things,” which they can monetize.
Harris described robocall scams as a “volume business.”
“There are scammers who are just casting this very wide net, and they're hoping that they're going to find someone who responds to that scam,” Harris said. “They're putting out so many that even if they only get a small percentage of people to respond, they still get a fairly decent haul out of the whole thing.”
Harris said scammers hope you hear something in the robocall that will make you stay on the line to talk with a live person or to call back the number they give you in the body of the robocall.
“Then you get on with the live scammer who then paints this picture for you about something that's going to happen that's dire, and usually you get pretty panicked about it,” Harris said. That’s when the scammer “just gives you this solution that sounds like it's going to make everything go away, and that's what we don't want people to do.”
“What we really want people to do at that point is hang up the phone and think, ‘How can I confirm if I'm in a program with an agency and they just called me and it doesn't sound right? It's not the person I ordinarily speak to. Who can I contact? What's my regular way of contacting that agency? How can I call them? How can I verify?’” Harris said.
Harris noted that many people who do send funds or give information to scammers are often “in the middle of some big, major thing in their lives at that time. They have an illness. They're worried about a family member who's ill. They've got a money crunch going on. They're just pressed for time. People are pulling at them all different ways and this is a problem they didn't need.”
Those who find themselves wrapped up in a scam are from all walks of life, Harris said, all ages and income levels.
“Please note that you're not alone,” Harris said.
How to report scam calls
If you’ve received a scam call like this, both Monaco and Harris urge everyone to report it. Monaco said while it isn’t a guarantee, the OIG’s investigations have often been successful at getting back money people have lost to scammers.
“Probably the first thing that you'd want to do, though, is to file a police report, a local police report,” Monaco said. “We're a federal law enforcement agency. Not a whole lot we can do right away. Our investigations take a while, but you know, getting a police report is the first thing. Get it documented and then working with your bank.”
Harris also encouraged people to contact local police.
“They've heard everything,” Harris said of local police. “And if you are scared in that moment and we're not available, please call your local police because they can at least put your mind at rest, and then we'd still like you to call us to report the scam.”
To report scams to the OIG at the SSA, click here.
In Cuyahoga County, report a scam to the Scam Squad at (216) 443-SCAM (7226) or online at this link.
You can also report scam calls to the Federal Trade Commission here.
Download the News 5 Cleveland app now for more stories from us, plus alerts on major news, the latest weather forecast, traffic information and much more. Download now on your Apple device here, and your Android device here.