A Real Social Security Office Gave Me a Flyer With a Scam Phone Number On It

“We need to let you know you have been selected for $100 in rewards.”

It was a cheery automated message, not what I expected when I called the number for the Social Security Administration’s primary office in Manhattan. The message went on: “Simply press 1 now to be connected to a live agent and claim your gift today.”

I double-checked the number, which a Social Security employee had just given me at the agency’s local office in Harlem in late February. I needed to replace a lost card, which was a service only offered at certain locations, the agent told me. He slid me a flyer and circled the contact information for the office in the Financial District in Manhattan.

“You can call this number to try making an appointment,” the agent told me.

“There are a ton of scams that use government agencies. But nothing like this.”

Still sitting in the lobby of the Harlem building, I dialed the number a couple more times, and each time reached a different grifter: I was eligible for another $100 gift card to Walmart, then help getting “free insurance.” I just had to hand over my name and address, to “confirm you’re eligible,” one scammer said. These are prototypical phone scam scripts.

In a recent experimental study, researchers posing as employees of a fictious government agency convinced more than 16 percent of older adult participants to hand over personal information, including their Social Security numbers. In another experiment, with college students, more than a third of participants gave out personally identifying information to scammers.

Highly unusual about the flyer in my hands, however, was that a very real government agency had given it to me.

“There are a ton of scams that use government agencies,” said Kathy Stokes, director of fraud prevention at the AARP’s Fraud Watch Network, such as “pretending to be the SSA and saying there’s a problem with your number or that your card has been suspended. But nothing like this.”

“I find that very concerning,” Stokes told The Intercept. “I can’t imagine how that would happen other than that someone on the inside being involved in it.”

When I brought the flyer back into the Harlem office that day, the same window agent called the number with me on speakerphone. When an automated message about $100 gift cards began to play, his eyes widened with confusion and he quickly hung up. “I need to tell a manager about this,” he said.

“I can’t imagine how that would happen other than that someone on the inside being involved in it.”

Reached for this story, Social Security employees at the Harlem office did not answer detailed questions about how this version of the flyer came into existence. “We were made aware” of the scam number on the flyer, one ticket agent said, “and that’s why we stopped giving those out.”

On closer inspection, the scam phone number was off by a single digit from the real direct line to the Manhattan Social Security office, and the phone numbers for other offices were legitimate. Stokes noted that the scam flyer had some hallmarks of amateurish doctoring, like inconsistent formatting and fonts. (I found pictures of similar documents posted to nongovernment websites — including Yelp and personal blog posts about the Social Security process — which the posters claimed were from other Social Security offices in the NYC area. Unlike the scam flyer, none of these versions included the phone numbers for individual offices.)

“This looks like some guy made this in the FedEx down the street and somehow got this in the pile of things to be given out,” Stokes said, instead of more a “sophisticated” scheme.

The scammers on the other end of the line were “pretty unsophisticated” too, noted Adam Doupé, a professor at Arizona State University who studies phone scams, after I showed him the flyer and he called the number himself.

“I wonder if the scammers themselves actually know what they have,” he said. “Imagine you are a scammer and realize that your number is printed on an official government document. How would you make the most money from this opportunity?”

Unable to let it go, I called the scam line several more times from different phone numbers to see what the scammers were after. Above all, they wanted my full name and address, which can be all a fraudster needs to pull off a change-of-address scam.

Only one scammer pretended to work at the Social Security Administration and said they could help me get a replacement card. They asked for my full name and address, but not my Social Security number.

A few scammers offered $100 in various forms as pretext to hand over my info. A couple said I could have a free “medical alert device,” and another claimed to offer “ID protection services.” Only one asked for a credit card number in addition to my address, on the pretext that it was needed to “activate” a gift card.

Amateur or not, this scam number still managed to sneak into a pile of handouts for at least one busy Social Security office in New York City. The Social Security inspector general’s office, which investigates phone scams, is looking into how this happened, according to Rebecca Rose, a press officer for the inspector general. But Rose would not give details about the inquiry, including whether the agency knows how long this version of the handout was given out or if other offices beside Harlem were also affected.

The inspector general’s office was unaware of prior instances of scam flyers at government offices. Instead, “the most common technique criminals use regarding fake numbers is to spoof an SSA number or caller ID, so that it appears the call is coming from SSA,” Rose said.

Reached via the actual phone number for the Manhattan office, a Social Security employee, who did not give a name, said numerous people had called about the scam number. “We’re trying to figure out who created this flyer.”

The post A Real Social Security Office Gave Me a Flyer With a Scam Phone Number On It appeared first on The Intercept.