Doing Our Small Part in Saving Social Security

According to the 2019 annual report of the Social Security Board of Trustees, the trust funds that disburse retirement, disability and other Social Security benefits will be depleted by 2035.

While the upshot of that fact does not mean the end of Social Security — since the system will still be able to pay out what it collects in taxes each year — unless changes are made to enhance the Social Security Administration’s coffers, benefits to retired and disabled workers will have to be cut. The situation is made more urgent by demographic trends, with baby-boomers swelling the ranks of retirees and lower birthrates in the general population.

Making things worse still is widespread fraud.

The SSA ranks third among government agencies when it comes to improper payments. Between 2004 and 2017, such disbursements totaled $1.3 trillion.

In addition to the use of fake or stolen Social Security numbers, cases of people arranging to receive Social Security benefits for deceased retirees or the disabled have become almost commonplace.

Last year alone, inspector general audits found that the Social Security Administration paid out more than $40 million to 500 dead people in Texas, Maryland and Michigan alone.

The latter state has an unusually high number of such fraud cases in its records and on its courts’ dockets.

One Detroit man was convicted of stealing his deceased mother’s identity for 25 years in order to collect her Social Security benefits. Another allegedly paid a homeless woman to pose as his dead parent. Yet another pretended to be his late mother in phone conversations with investigators, raising the pitch of his voice to sound more convincing. (He wasn’t.)

When a person dies, his or her Social Security benefits are supposed to end, of course, and usually do, when a funeral home, family or state agency reports the death to SSA, which also urges families to report deaths as soon as possible.

But greedy relatives like those referenced above have managed to hide the deaths of their loved ones so that they can collect their benefits.

Over the last five years, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit says it has prosecuted more deceased payee fraud cases than almost any other region in the country, charging at least 40 people with collecting dead people’s benefits. Another 125 cases were caught up in a recent audit.

But there are other ways SSA is cheated out of money earmarked for qualified citizens. Just last week in Florida, a 57-year-old Ocala man, Malik Mustafa Al-Ameen, was sentenced to 20 months in prison and ordered to pay restitution for stealing more than $77,000 from the Social Security Administration by submitting false paperwork to receive benefits for which he did not qualify.

Investigators use a variety of tools to detect fraud, like focusing on Social Security recipients who have not visited a doctor over several years. But such tracking is painstaking and inefficient, and there is no reason to think that the SSA fraud crimes being prosecuted aren’t the mere tip of an illegal iceberg.

There is, though, a role that all citizens can play in helping reduce such crimes: Not becoming their direct victims.

Falling into an SSA scam trap is, unfortunately, not hard. Many otherwise astute people have assumed that phone calls from ostensible Social Security employees were legitimate, and complied when asked for personal information, including Social Security numbers and bank account information. Often such a scammer claims that information has been lost or that confirmation of the information will result in increased payments or rebates.

The Federal Trade Commission reported a surge in late 2018 of fake “SSA employees” calling people with warnings that their Social Security numbers had been linked to criminal activity and were as a result suspended. The caller then asked for confirmation of personal information in order to reinstate their account. Social Security does not ever block or suspend numbers.

Email has provided scammers with another useful tool. Electronic communications that seem to have come from SSA and that direct people to websites designed to look like Social Security’s site, where the target is asked to “update their information,” have snared many an unsuspecting target.

Fraudsters have even sent out emails appearing to be from SSA that instruct recipients to click a link to register for a free service that protects them from Social Security fraud. It does nothing of the sort, of course, but rather seeks to obtain victims’ social security numbers.

SSA estimates that scammers contact thousands of Americans every day, looking to obtain personal information, steal benefits or both.

It might seem unnecessary to say so, but experience shows otherwise: No one should provide his name, Social Security number, date of birth or bank account numbers to any solicitor of such information.

Not becoming victims of SSA fraud will not alone maintain the system’s solvency beyond 2035. But it can certainly help.