A Publix grocery store supermarket ins Miami has a “Stop beware of Scams” warning sign on its gift card display.

A Publix grocery store supermarket ins Miami has a “Stop beware of Scams” warning sign on its gift card display. Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Slam the Scam

Some tips for avoiding scams and resources for help if you become victim to a scam artist.

Did you know that National Slam the Scam Day was last week? Part of the annual National Consumer Protection Week, it serves as a call to action for both individuals and communities, urging them to heighten awareness about Social Security and other government imposter scams.   

I never thought I could be fooled by something like this, but not too long ago I came close to getting involved with a “gift card” scam. A few months ago, I received an email from the president of my local chapter of the National Active and Retired Employees Association asking me to help with a project he was involved with since he wasn’t feeling well and had recently had issues with his cell phone (these two things should have been my first clues). He wrote to me that he had committed to delivering gift cards to disabled veterans, but due to his illness and the problem with his cell phone, he wasn’t going to be able to do it and asked if I could help out. The first response I had was “Sure!  I would be happy to help you!” But thankfully I am a detail-oriented person, so I asked a lot of follow-up questions to make sure I knew what was needed and where the veterans were located. After a few back-and-forth emails, I decided to look more closely at the email address for my friend and that’s when I realized that this wasn’t from our NARFE president, but instead, I was on the verge of becoming a victim of a scam artist. That was close, but I came away with a better appreciation of how easily it is to be fooled. 

According to the Social Security Administration, there are four signs of a scam that include: 

  • Scammers pretend to be from an agency or organization you know to gain your trust. 
  • Scammers say there is a problem or a prize. 
  • Scammers pressure you to act immediately. 
  • Scammers tell you to pay in a specific way. 

These were all present in the scam that I almost fell for!  When it comes to protecting your Social Security benefits and wage information, watch for these red flags; You can trust that Social Security will never:  

  • Threaten you with arrest or legal action because you don’t agree to pay money immediately. 
  • Suspend your Social Security number. 
  • Claim to need personal information or payment to activate a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) or other benefit increase. 
  • Pressure you to take immediate action, including sharing personal information. 
  • Ask you to pay with gift cards, prepaid debit cards, wire transfers, cryptocurrency, or by mailing cash. 
  • Threaten to seize your bank account. 
  • Offer to move your money to a “protected” bank account. 
  • Demand secrecy. 
  • Direct message you on social media. 

Be skeptical and look for red flags. If you receive a suspicious call, text message, email, letter, or message on social media, the caller or sender may not be who they say they are. Scammers have also been known to: 

  • Use legitimate names of Office of Inspector General or Social Security Administration employees. 
  • “Spoof” official government phone numbers, or even numbers for local police departments. 
  • Send official-looking documents by U.S. mail or attachments through email, text, or social media message. 

The Office of Personnel Management Office of the Inspector General has recently become aware that a discontinued customer service phone number (888-353-9450) previously associated with OPM’s Employee Express website is currently in use by fraudsters/bad actors who have practiced financial exploitation tactics. The OPM OIG is warning the public, particularly federal employees and annuitants, not to call this number. 

Scammers can be very convincing.They call, email, and send us text messages trying to get our money or sensitive personal information — like our Social Security or account numbers. And they're good at what they do. 

Here’s what to do if you paid someone you think is a scammer or gave them your personal information or access to your computer or phone. If you paid a scammer, your money might be gone already. No matter how you pay, it’s always worth asking the company you used to send the money to if there’s a way to get it back. If you paid with a credit or debit card, contact the company or bank that issued the credit card or debit card. Tell them it was a fraudulent charge. Ask them to reverse the transaction and give you your money back. If you paid with a gift card, contact the company that issued the gift card. Tell them it was used in a scam and ask them to refund your money. Keep the gift card itself, and the gift card receipt. For additional information, if you think you’ve been the victim of a scam, contact the Federal Trade Commission.  

The late criminologist, Donald R. Cressey, identified three conditions that must be present for an ordinary person to commit fraud: 

  • Pressure: The criminal could be lured by greed and an easy financial gain or pressured by negative influences such as loss of employment or status, gambling addictions, health problems or crippling debts. 
  • Opportunity: Perhaps there is a lack of oversight. Often the fraud starts small and then increases once the opportunity is confirmed. 
  • Rationalization: The act of fraud is easily rationalized in the mind of the criminal. Most people who commit fraud are first-time offenders with no criminal history.  They may justify what they are doing by thinking, “I’ll pay it back later,” “No one will even notice it’s gone,” “I deserve it,” “I pay enough tax,” or they may even claim, “I did it for my family.”  

 SSA presents cases of fraudulent activity to federal, state, or local prosecutors for criminal prosecution. In 2022, the U.S. Attorney's Office prosecuted eight cases for Social Security fraud, six of which were sentenced, resulting in a total loss of $529,334.80. The Justice Department prosecutes identity theft and fraud cases under various federal statutes. 

A recent fraud case resulted in a federal judge sentencing William Hayden Searcy to 64 months in federal prison. In March and April of 2022, Searcy cashed fraudulent checks at various locations around Montgomery, Ala. Details discussed during Searcy’s sentencing hearing on Feb. 22, 2024, revealed that Searcy: (1) stole checks from mailboxes; (2) washed the checks using chemicals that removed ink; (3) wrote new information on the checks making them payable to accounts he controlled; and (4) went to financial institutions and cashed the altered checks. Searcy also used the identities from some of the stolen checks to print checks of his own.  

“Mail theft and check fraud are nationwide problems,” said Acting United States Attorney Ross. “Although the Postal Service works diligently to ensure that mail is delivered securely, individuals frequently find ways to exploit the mail system.  Individuals should be mindful of the receptacles used to mail checks and check bank accounts regularly for suspicious transactions.”     

“When identity thieves use the U.S. Mail to further their scheme, Postal Inspectors work tirelessly with federal prosecutors to bring them to justice,” said Scott Fix, Inspector-in-Charge of the Houston Division. “Fraud and identity theft are not victimless crimes and individuals such as Searcy who commit these crimes face significant penalties because of their criminal activity.  

There is a cost of fraud that goes beyond the individual victim. For example, fraud increases the cost of health care for everyone and increases your Federal Employees Health Benefits Program premium. OPM's Office of the Inspector General investigates all allegations of fraud, waste, and abuse in the FEHB Program regardless of the agency that employs you or from which you retired. The Inspector General Act of 1978 gave the Office of the Inspector Generalthe authority to accept complaints from tOPM employees, contractors, and the public concerning criminal activity, fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement of the agency’s programs and operations. If you suspect fraud with FEHB or your federal retirement benefits, contact OPM’s Office of The Inspector General’s Hotline to Report Fraud, Waste, or Abuse. 

The most common types of complaints investigated by the OIG fall into the following categories: 

  • Crime, gross misconduct, or conflicts of interest involving OPM employees and/or contractors; 
  • Fraud, waste, or abuse relating to OPM programs and operations, including: 
  • Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, 
  • Civil Service Retirement System, 
  • Federal Employees Retirement System, 
  • Combined Federal Campaign, 
  • Federal Employees' Group Life Insurance, 
  • Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program, and 
  • Federal Employees Dental/Vision Insurance Program; 
  • False/fraudulent claims submitted to a FEHBP or FEDVIP-contracted health insurance carrier, such as billing for services not rendered/up-coding, which is billing for a higher level of service than was actually provided; 
  • Kickbacks/inducements for referrals by medical providers, marketers, and/or drug manufacturers related to the payment of FEHBP benefits/services; 
  • Any suspected patient harm perpetrated by a medical provider in relation to a FEHBP beneficiary; 
  • Medical identity theft involving FEHBP beneficiaries; 
  • Overprescribing/abuse of opioid prescription pain medications to FEHBP beneficiaries; 
  • Fraud/ineligible dependents receiving healthcare benefits within the FEHBP, FEDVIP, FLTCIP, and/or other OPM-related benefit programs; 
  • Fraud/ineligible beneficiaries receiving a FEGLI life insurance payment(s) upon the death of the insured; 
  • Fraud/ineligible family members receiving CSRS/FERS annuity benefit payments upon the death of the annuitant; 
  • Abuse/neglect by caregivers, nursing homes, and other long-term care facilities related to CSRS/FERS retirees or annuitants, and/or FEHBP beneficiaries; and 
  • OPM employee and/or contractor misconduct, theft and/or fraud. 

Learn how to protect yourself from common scams that target consumers like you—and what to do if you're a victim. 

Additional ways to report consumer fraud: