By JEB PHILLIPS
The Columbus Dispatch (MCT)
The scam begins the way so many others do: An older person answers the phone and is told he or she has won the lottery. Or maybe there’s been a problem at the bank.
The caller needs a Social Security number or some other private information to proceed.
But instead of using the information to open an unauthorized credit card or conduct some other shady business, there’s a new wrinkle: The scammers divert the person’s monthly Social Security benefit payments into their own accounts.
Most frequently, the older person had been receiving the payments by direct deposit. The scammers call the Social Security Administration or go online or to a bank and use the personal information to change the destination of the payments.
The Social Security Administration’s inspector general received 19,000 reports of potentially fraudulent changes or attempted changes between October 2011 and this September. As of Sept. 12, the office had received 50 reports per day.
The administration’s Chicago regional office confirmed that the Columbus offices have seen the fraud, though a spokesman said he couldn’t discuss specific cases.
And a federal Treasury Department rule that takes effect in March will require almost all Social Security benefit payments to be made through direct deposit. More than 90 percent already are.
The scam is “a current and serious challenge for the agency and its beneficiaries,” Inspector General Patrick P. O’Carroll Jr. said in congressional testimony last month.
Michael Walters, a lawyer who manages the legal hot line for the Cincinnati-based nonprofit group Pro Seniors Inc., said his organization recently received two calls from seniors who had their benefits payments diverted. The scam is working its way into Ohio, he said.
Local Social Security offices “need to treat this as an absolute priority,” he said. Walters noted that in the one case he handled, the Social Security Administration acted reasonably and reissued the payment to his client.
The administration takes all of the reports seriously, said Doug Nguyen, a spokesman for the Chicago regional office. Most of the 19,000 reports of potential fraud came from Social Security employees or offices after they had noticed suspicious activity.
Not all of those reports were actual fraud, he said. And the 19,000 reports came out of 711?m illion total payments, so the overall percentage of possibly diverted payments is less than one-hundredth of a percent.Nguyen said that people who are worried can block all electronic access to their Social Security accounts through the website www.socialsecurity.gov/blockaccess. That will make it impossible to change bank accounts and other information over the phone or online.
The Social Security Administration is working on another sort of access block that it will unveil by the end of October, Nguyen said. O’Carroll, in his congressional testimony, said that the administration and banks need to do a better job of verifying identities before making account changes.
The most basic precaution is to guard your private information, say Social Security officials. Don’t give out a Social Security number to someone in an unsolicited call.
That’s not always easy with the population targeted in this scam. Donna Roush, 84, of the North Side, reported to the Ohio attorney general that her husband had given out his Social Security number in 2010 after repeated harassing phone calls.
“We were so worried about our money,” she said. After talks with their bank, though, it seemed that no one had defrauded them.
Those worried that they have been victims of Social Security fraud can make a report to the administration’s Office of Inspector General at 1-800-269-0271 or through oig.ssa.gov.