4 Tips to Avoid Falling for Government Impersonation Scams

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Editor's Note: This story originally appeared on The Penny Hoarder.

A financial advice columnist wouldn’t fall for a financial scam, would she?

That was what financial analyst Charlotte Cowles thought when she handed over $50,000 to a man she thought was an undercover Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent.

In the wake of her viral personal essay about her mistake, one thing became clear — government impersonation scams are becoming increasingly convincing.

Luckily, there are some things you can do to protect yourself from government scams. We have a few tips to help you spot and avoid them.

What Are Government Impersonation Scams?

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Government impersonation scams affect thousands of people every year. Nearly 150,000 attempts were reported to the Federal Trade Commission in 2023. That’s an increase of almost 20,000 from 2022.

But the financial losses are even more alarming. Last year, victims lost more than $443 million to this type of fraud.

Government impersonation scams come in a variety of disguises. Here are some of the most common.

1. Social Security Administration Scams

Senior woman who is victim of a scam
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Government impersonators typically use phishing and vishing techniques to coerce you into handing over information or money.

Phishing is performed via email and attempts to lure you into submitting information on an imposter website, while vishing happens by phone.

One of the top phishing/vishing scams during tax season involves people impersonating the Social Security Administration, according to ex-FBI special agent Dave Burroughs, a partner at StoneTurn.

“A perpetrator may call a victim pretending to be a representative from the Social Security Administration (SSA) and indicate that their Social Security Number is locked or set to expire and demand payment to resolve the issue,” Burroughs said.

2. IRS Scams

Woman in a phone scam
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IRS impersonation scams are so common, the agency keeps a list of current tax scams on its website.

This type of fraud seeks to dupe taxpayers into paying money or providing sensitive data. This is done by phone, email, text and postal mail. The imposter may tell you that you owe money or you’re due a refund.

Scammers also commonly use threats of arrest or legal action to frighten taxpayers into doing whatever they say.

3. Law Enforcement Scams

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When Cowles handed $50,000 to a scammer posing as a CIA agent, it followed a chain of events that started with a call from a supposed Amazon representative.

The imposter passed her to a pretend Federal Trade Commission representative, who then put her in touch with someone claiming to be an agent with the CIA. The “agent” claimed a warrant was out for her arrest, and the money in her bank account was at risk.

Threats of arrest are a hallmark of law enforcement scams. Whether it’s a local police officer or a federal agent, these scams are easy to spot because they don’t follow the usual lines of communication.

“Government agencies do not usually call, text or email unless they have ongoing business with the individual,” Burroughs said. “They typically communicate by letter.”

4. Federal Trade Commission Scams

Frustrated man on laptop dealing with scams
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Cowles talked to an FTC imposter before she got to the CIA.

As the government agency that investigates scams, the FTC can offer the illusion of safety. Scammers have also posed as the FTC to tell consumers they’ve won sweepstakes, awards or some type of grant.

The FTC does not issue grants or hold sweepstakes. Most importantly, though, no representative of the FTC will ask you for money or personal information.

If someone claiming to be an FTC agent threatens to arrest or deport you, it’s a sure sign it’s a scam.

4 Tips to Reduce Your Risk

Man shocked by what he sees on phone
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While there are steps you can take to repair damage once you’ve been scammed, it’s better to avoid becoming a victim in the first place.

Jim Van Dyke, senior principal and head of innovation at TransUnion™, is a research analyst who’s spent years studying identity crime. He has a few tips to help keep yourself safe from government impersonation scams.

1. Don’t Trust a Phone Call

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Caller ID makes it easy to see who’s calling before you answer the phone … or does it? These days, scammers can easily spoof numbers, or falsify the information on the caller ID so you think it’s a trusted phone number.

A simple recorded “yes” from you also could help a scammer say you authorized a charge to your credit card.

“If you’re suspicious of someone who contacts you unexpectedly, stop communicating with them, even if the number appears to be from a trusted source,” Van Dyke said.

“Government agencies generally only reach out to people by mail — not phone, text or email.”

2. Instead, Contact the Agency

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Any legitimate government representative will have no problem letting you hang up and contact the agency yourself through the main number.

Whether it’s the IRS, the FTC or law enforcement, you should hang up, find the correct phone number and dial it yourself.

3. Resist Offering Payment or Information

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Scammers are always after something, and usually that something is your money or personally identifiable information. Government agencies don’t ask for that information by phone, text or email.

If someone tries to pry personal data out of you, always be skeptical.

“Any call, text, email or other communication that asks you to transmit account or card numbers, Social Security numbers, one-time passcodes or PINs should be met with high levels of caution,” Van Dyke said.

4. Refuse to Act Urgently

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“Bad guys know that the longer it takes to convince someone of a story, the less likely they’ll be successful,” Van Dyke said.

Be skeptical if someone is pushing you to make a decision quickly. Insist on taking down the person’s information and conducting some research before making a decision.

Government impersonation scams can be surprisingly convincing. If you’ve encountered a scam, report it to the FTC on its fraud reporting site. Reporting is key to alerting the FTC to all the scams circulating in a given year.

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