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How to avoid the Social Security scam that makes you out to be a criminal.

How to avoid the Social Security scam that makes you out to be a criminal. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Maybe con artists are inspired by the movie "The Mule" where Clint Eastwood plays an octogenarian who hauls cocaine shipments in a Lincoln pickup for a Mexican cartel.

Maybe it's all the political haggling over "The Wall" where President Donald Trump and his supporters want to beef up border security by creating a barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border to combat drug traffickers.

Maybe it's the El Chapo drug trial in New York.

But here's a new scam alert: Consumers are getting alarming phone calls from someone who claims to be from law enforcement or Social Security and then scares you into thinking that your Social Security number has been connected to running drugs and money laundering across the border.

The scam tries to convince you that your Social Security number has been suspended because of suspicious activity or because it's connected to a serious crime.

In some cases, your caller ID may show the real SSA phone number - 800-772-1213 - when the scammers call. But again, the con artists are able to spoof this number and make it look more legitimate.

It's not really Social Security calling.

The scam isn't just targeting seniors. "It's happening to everyone and they are targeting all ages," said Amy Nofziger, AARP fraud expert. "They're definitely casting a wider net to see if they can get anything."

That's why it's important to reach out to millennials and teens, as well, when talking to family members about this scam.

The drug bust angle is relatively new but it does have a ring of truth to it. After all, many times you hear that law enforcement discovers Social Security cards and stacks of counterfeit checks as part of some drug bust.

Dietrich Gruen, 69, blogged in January about how he got snowed.

"It was a painful story to have to write," said Gruen, who lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

The caller, who claimed to be from law enforcement, claimed Gruen's Social Security number was found in two drug houses in El Paso, Texas, which had been recently raided by the U.S. Marshals.

He spent 17 minutes on the phone with the scammers. As a pastor of a local church, he wanted to cooperate.

"They gave me a badge number, a case number," he said. "I had a bench warrant for my arrest."

He felt like officials initially viewed him as "a guy laundering money and running drugs across the border. So let's get him."

But Gruen said that at one point he felt law enforcement soon understood he wasn't involved in criminal activity. They seemed like they were willing to help him clear his name. So he asked questions and did what was asked.

"They did get my Social Security number," he said. "The whole number."

The scammers sounded real, not like someone operating out of a backroom in India or another country. "They sounded trustworthy, authoritative," he said.

Sometimes, callers play up the various data breaches where your personal data could have been stolen in the past - only to be used now by the criminal element.

Some tricks are designed to make you hand over your Social Security number, which can be used to file fraudulent tax returns to trigger generous tax refunds for the crooks, as well as to open credit cards using your ID.

The thinking is that scammers have had to evolve and shift away from the same old tactics, such as the tried-and-true impersonation scams around the Internal Revenue Service.

"They had to flip their script to try something new," Nofziger said. "They watch current affairs. They see what's happening."

Other new scams include:

'Neighbor spoofing'

The Better Business Bureau has been warning of an uptick in Neighbor Spoofing - which makes the caller ID look like someone in your neighborhood or maybe someone you know is on the other line.

We're more likely to pick up the phone, after all, if the call appears to be coming from a local area code. "They're taking real people's numbers from the area that you're in," Nofziger said.

And if someone rips off your phone number to make these calls, well, you can expect to hear from angry people.

Best bet: Record a new message on your phone that tells callers that your number was stolen and apologize to say that you've not made any calls to their number relating to credit card discounts or whatever the scam.

'The Microsoft Refund Scam'

Consumers have reported calls that somehow offer a refund relating to overpaying for Microsoft services by $500 or so. Or they were told that a company that they've done business with in the past has gone out of business and now they're owed a refund.

Nofziger said she got a call recently telling her that Microsoft has gone out of business and she was owed a refund.

People, of course, are more willing to provide information to get a refund. But you shouldn't provide a bank account number, credit card number or a PayPal account number in order to get such refunds. You risk giving scammers access to your account.

Always remember that it's a bad idea to give anyone information out of the blue - no matter what the promise or the threat. The same's true if someone asks you to buy gift cards or go to a bitcoin ATM to take care of an old bill.

Some scammers may even claim that your bank account is about to be seized. In that kind of scam, you're often asked to keep your account open by putting money on gift cards and giving the scammer the codes - a way for the crooks to get access to the cash on those cards.

It's even key to protect the last four digits of your Social Security number. So do not feel safe verifying just four digits with a strange caller, either. In some cases, the scammer may want you to confirm your Social Security number or part of that number to reactivate it.

The Social Security Administration recommends that you call SSA's toll-free number, 800-772-1213, to verify the reason for the contact and the person's identity prior to providing any information to the caller.

You can also call the Social Security fraud hotline: 800-269-0271.

The Federal Trade Commission is warning that Social Security-related scams have heated up. You can file a complaint about such impostor scams, including Social Security or IRS scams, at the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint.

In 2017, the FTC said it heard from 3,200 people about Social Security impostor scams and people reported losing nearly $210,000. By late 2018, more than 35,000 people had reported the scam. And the FTC said consumers said they lost $10 million.

Sure, you'd think people wouldn't fall for this stuff any more. You'd think scams involving handing over Social Security numbers or payment by iTunes gift cards have been well advertised.

All true enough. But the scammers definitely are on top of their game and willing to take a chance that one day they catch you off guard.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Susan Tompor is the personal finance columnist for the Detroit Free Press. She can be reached at stompor@freepress.com.

Visit Detroit Free Press at www.freep.com

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