There’s a Scam Born Every Minute

social security phone scam, phone scams

Miriam knew she was in for a big headache.

A call had come in from the Social Security Administration (SSA)’s toll free number.

The caller, who knew Miriam’s first and last name, stated his name and SSA employee ID number, before informing her that her Social Security number (SSN) had been used to open bank accounts and credit cards associated with drug traffickers in Texas.

The caller was kind, and said the SSA did not believe that Miriam, 30, a Flatbush resident, was involved; it was probably gangsters who had stolen her SSN and used it for these crimes. Unfortunately, he said, the SSA would have to freeze her accounts and give her a new SSN, but they’d be happy to make the process as smooth as possible.

First they’d need to confirm some financial information. Had she made any purchases in Texas? “No.” Can you please verify your SSN? “Sure,” said Miriam, and told them the digits.

“How many bank accounts do you have?” “Three.”

“How much money is in those accounts?”

“Fifteen dollars. Total.”

The caller promptly hung up.

Only then did Miriam realize that she hadn’t been speaking with anyone from the SSA, but with sophisticated scam artists.

Though she was lucky not to lose any money, she did have to put a hold on her SSN so that the scammers — to whom she had unwittingly given it — would not actually use that number to open accounts.

Nearly 140,000 people have fallen victim this year to what law enforcement describes as the Social Security Scam, which has netted con artists over $29 million, according to the Federal Trade Commission; in New York City alone, more than 500 people have lost nearly $5.8 million, according to the New York Police Department. [FTC numbers for 2019 are through Sept. 30; New York figures are through Oct. 27. All numbers are only of victims who reported complaints to the respective agencies; the actual number of victims is likely far higher. The FTC’s complaint-intake system can take complaints from people located in the U.S. or in other countries, but the vast majority of complaints come from the U.S.]

The Social Security Scam is one of the most serious of all phone scams faced by law enforcement agencies, according to Deputy Inspector Jessica Corey, commanding officer of the NYPD’s Crime Prevention Division. Corey, who has spent much of this year speaking with victims to understand the nature of these calls, says the scam is so successful because the scammers use a highly sophisticated script, often pretending to transfer victims between multiple government agencies; use names of real police and other law-enforcement officials; are expert at “phishing” for information; and, perhaps most importantly, utilize “phone spoofing” — making the caller ID appear that the call is coming from the police or the SSA.

The Social Security Scam typically follows some variation of the following pattern: The victim receives a call, with the caller ID showing the SSA’s phone number. Sometimes the caller may already know some information about the victim, such as her name or her SSN. The caller says that the victim’s SSN has been used, possibly by Texas drug dealers, to open bank accounts or credit cards, and that if the victim cooperates with the SSA, that will prove her own innocence, and she’ll be able to protect the funds in her account before it is closed for a law-enforcement investigation.

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The calls often take hours, as victims are supposedly transferred between one agency and another, from SSA to FBI to the local police precinct, with each “officer” supposedly giving his name — which may in fact be the name of a real officer at these agencies, and which is easily obtainable online.

Finally, the victim is advised that, for her protection, she should immediately remove all funds from her account, but she is warned, “Don’t tell anyone — not family, not even the bank teller. You don’t know who may be in on this scheme to steal your SSN.”

Once the funds are withdrawn, the victim is instructed to send it to the SSA or other government agency — via wire transfer, through a Bitcoin ATM or by purchasing gift cards and giving the agency the code, or by FedExing the cash.  [The gift cards — for companies like Amazon, eBay, Apple, Target, Home Depot, Best Buy or Google Play — can be purchased at the stores themselves, and at many pharmacies like CVS, Rite Aid and Duane Reade.]

The victim is assured that when the money is received, the government will immediately send her a check for the full amount.

***

As soon as she received the call, Galina Gursoy knew October 3, 2019, was going to be a difficult day.

It was shortly after noon, and Galina was at her job as a home attendant for an elderly person in Brooklyn when she received a call on her cellphone from an 800 phone number.

“Hello, is this Galina Gursoy?”

“Yes.”

“Are the last four digits of your social security number ****?” he asked, stating the correct numbers.

“Yes.”

The caller identified himself as an officer in the SSA, giving his name and ID number. He told Galina that someone in Texas had used her SSN to open more than 25 credit cards, which they’d used for more than $2 million of drug transactions. He asked if she might have shared her SSN with any friends or family, but she said no.

Galina and the caller had an extensive conversation in which he described the nature of the crimes that her account had been used for.

“But he said it seems that I am an honest person and if I help them, they will catch the people who did this,” recalls Galina. “They said the FBI had opened a criminal investigation in my name, and gave me the number of the case. He said, ‘We need your help, and it will be easier for you if you help us.’”

Finally, the caller asked Galina where she was. She replied that she was working, but he insisted she leave her job immediately to resolve this issue.

“I told him I take care of elderly people and can’t leave my client,” says Galina. “But he said that if I didn’t help them, the FBI would arrest me, because there is an open case in my name. And he said I can’t tell anyone, because maybe it was someone from my family who had used my SSN.”

It was after 2:00 when Galina left the office, after telling someone at her company that she had an emergency. Still on the phone, the caller asked which bank she had an account in. She replied, “TD Bank.” The caller then sent her to an address at Coney Island Avenue near Avenue Y. She assumed she’d be meeting him there, but it turned out to be the address of the nearest TD Bank.

The caller told her not to go in immediately — he stayed on the phone with her for another 30 minutes while she waited outside. He asked her to send him a selfie, as well as a photograph of the front and back of her driver’s license. She complied. Finally, he instructed her to withdraw all her money except for $500.

“He said that the next day I will get a check for this money,” recalls Galina. “He made me really confused. I asked him, ‘If I go into the bank and they have opened a crime case in my name, they will arrest me.’ But he said, ‘No, they can’t arrest you because you are helping us. They can only arrest you if you don’t help us.’”

She went inside and withdrew $9,500 of the $10,000 in her account.

The caller then told Galina she’d receive another call momentarily — this one from an officer from the NYPD’s 61st Precinct.

“He gave me the number of the precinct and the officer’s name. And he said, ‘Only answer a call from that number.’ And then this guy called me from that number; he said his name and told me the same story the first person told me.”

The “cop” instructed Galina to go to an address at Kings Highway, so she could “obtain a new SSN.” The address turned out to be a grocery store; she wondered if perhaps there was a secret FBI office upstairs. She stayed outside, still on the phone, for over an hour, before being told that “the machine in our office is broken,” and she had to go to a different “office,” at a different address. She was happy to comply, because her stepson had a law office nearby. She went to his office, but he was out, so she just left the cash at his office.

It was 4:30 as Galina headed to the address of the nearby “ FBI office.” It turned out to be another grocery store, with a Bitcoin ATM — this was the “machine” the caller had been referring to. Galina told the “cop” she had left the money at her stepson’s office, but assured him that she had not spoken to anyone. He warned her that if she did, she’d be immediately arrested.

Galina began to grow suspicious.

“I said to him, ‘You know my face, I sent a selfie and my license, but I don’t know who you are.’ He replied, ‘You can’t talk that way to a police officer; when they arrest you, you will get a more severe punishment if you talk impolitely to a police officer.’ So I said, ‘Sorry, police officer.’”

“I asked why I had to put my cash in the machine. He said it’s not good to keep so much cash on me, and that I will get a government check and my money will be safe. I didn’t fully understand, but I figured it was for my money’s safety. So I went back to my stepson’s office to pick up my money.”

But Galina did not comply with the callers’ warnings not to speak to anyone.

With her stepson still out, she whispered to his legal secretary, asking her to Google the phone number on her caller ID; it indeed turned out to be the number of the NYPD’s 61st precinct. She put the phone on speaker and asked the “police officer” to explain again why she had to put the money in the Bitcoin machine and what the government check was all about. The secretary assured her that it sounded legitimate.

The “cop” then transferred Galina to another officer at the “61st Precinct,” who would explain how she could use the Bitcoin machine. But she apparently did something wrong and jammed the machine, so he told her to go back to the Kings Highway address — the machine at that store seemed to be working now.

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It was almost 6:00 p.m. by the time Galina returned to the Kings Highway store. The “officer” explained how she could make a deposit in the Bitcoin ATM. A maximum of $5,000 was allowed per deposit, so she had to make two deposits, under two different phone numbers — numbers the caller gave her. She deposited the money, scanned the Bitcoin codes — and then sent them to the caller.

It was done. The caller said Galina could come to the 61st Precinct station house and pick up her $9,500 check.

Galina went to the station house and asked for her check, but none of the officers knew what she was talking about.

The cops informed her that she must have been the latest victim of the Social Security Scam.

And how did Galina feel at that moment? “I was empty,” she recalls. “I walked out of the police station. And I actually started thinking about how smart the scammers are — how they did a good job with me, because I’m not stupid, but they made me really look stupid.

“I understood — I had lost everything I had.”

To make matters worse, the next day Galina’s boss nearly fired her for having left the job so suddenly the day before.

In the month following the incident, Galina lost 10 pounds, and says that “inside, I am feeling kind of nervous, something is eating me.

“At age 63, I am almost retiring. It would be good if I had some money, but now I have to keep working. What can I do?”

But Galina says she will be fine.

“I am a very calm person. I try to understand. It happened, it happened. It is one month already. I am OK now.”

Galina tells friends and speaks to media outlets about the ordeal, so that none will fall victim as she did. She visited her bank and advised them that if a customer withdraws almost their entire account, the bank should alert the customer to these scams.

***

Galina’s experience is fairly typical of the Social Security Scam. The scammers relied on phone spoofing, official-sounding names and agencies, used a combination of kindness and threats, kept her on the phone for hours, and transferred her between multiple “agencies” and “officers.”

But why do victims believe that a law-enforcement agency would do a money transfer through unconventional means such as a Bitcoin ATM, gift-card purchase, or wire transfer?

“Because, unfortunately, they’re terrified,” says Deputy Inspector Corey. “And it happens over a period of time — they stay on the phone with them, and they just are terrifying them.”

People may assume that scam victims are all elderly people, or people with a poor command of English or of low intelligence. But that assumption would be wrong. Four-fifths of the Social Security Scam victims in New York City were below the age of 60. Corey says she has encountered professionals — lawyers, people in the finance industry, nurses — who have fallen victim to one scam or another.

“A lot of times,” says Corey, “they catch people when they’re vulnerable. Not because they’re vulnerable individuals — but because they’re vulnerable at the moment.”

Kimberly*, a young mother, was having an extremely stressful week. Her child had strep throat, she was busy on the phone with doctors and the pharmacy, when she suddenly got a call from a scammer. [Names followed by asterisks have been changed to protect victims’ identities. Minor details of some stories have been altered.]

“If somebody just calls you up and says, ‘Hey, you have to send me money, and you do it right now,’ you’d hang up,” says Corey. “But they work their way through such a good script, and I think the biggest thing is these phone numbers appearing to be from government agencies, and then they follow up with these other phone calls, ‘Now you’re talking to Detective Smith or Officer Jones.’”

Perhaps Kimberly’s guard was down at this vulnerable moment, but she, an Ivy League graduate, ended up wiring the scammers $27,000.

Kimberly later told Corey that while she was on the phone with the scammers, all she could think of was “being taken away in handcuffs in front of my daughter.”

Sometimes the scammers know information about the victim before the call — such as, in Galina’s case, where they had obviously stolen the last four digits of her SSN. But in many cases, they just get lucky. One woman they called happened to have a son in a drug rehab in Texas, so when the scammers said her account had been used in a Texas drug scheme, she was convinced that her son was involved and fell for the scam.

The scam artists know they will luck out on just a tiny fraction of calls — but when they do get a victim, they’ve made as much as $300,000 on a single call.

No real government entity will ever call you and threaten to arrest you if you don’t send them money by wire transfer, gift card, FedExing cash, Bitcoin ATM, or any other method. No government entity will ever warn you not to speak to family members.

If you get any such call, says Corey, “just hang up.”

While the Social Security Scam is among the most prevalent and costly, there are quite a few others, which have also netted scammers handsome sums of money.

Around 5,000 New Yorkers have fallen victim to some sort of phone scam in 2019. [Whereas the NYPD provided Hamodia detailed statistics about various scams, the FTC provided statistics only for the Social Security Scam. Of course, all scams affecting New Yorkers are also affecting people across the country and, probably, around the world.]

***

Sharon*, a young lawyer who had just joined a large firm, received an email from her boss one evening.

“Hi Sharon, I’m having a meeting with some associates tomorrow, and I’ll be handing out gift cards. Can you pick up ten $300 cards for me at CVS or Walgreen’s on your way into work tomorrow?”

Happy to do a favor for her new boss, Sharon replied just an hour later that she had purchased the cards. Early the next morning, the boss followed up. “Thanks, Sharon. Actually, it turns out that the meeting will be earlier than I’d planned — before you get into the office. Can you just email me the card numbers, please?” Sharon dutifully complied.

***

The email Sharon had received was not, in fact, from her boss, but from a scammer who had created an email account with the boss’s name.

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A rack of gift cards at a pharmacy. (Hamodia)

Many companies post all employees’ email addresses publicly; the name of the CEO or managing partner or other executive is public as well. The scammer had created an email account with the name of the boss — which Sharon couldn’t have known unless she’d read the full email address, and who does that? — and sent the same message to all 200 attorneys in the firm. It just took one person to fall for it, and the scammer made a quick $3,000, as Sharon became one of the 239 New Yorkers to fall victim this year to the Boss Gift-Card Scam.

In another variation of the Boss Gift-Card Scam, the employee will receive a text message from an unknown number, from someone claiming to be her boss. Since many employees don’t have their boss’s cellphone number, they fall for it — and are even flattered that the “boss” is reaching out to them for a favor.

Law enforcement cautions that if you ever receive an email asking you to do something like buy gift cards, double-check the email address and — as even real email addresses can be hacked — call the person yourself, to make sure the request is legitimate.

Even family of law-enforcement officials are not immune from scams.

***

The phone rang in a home in Nassau County one April morning.

“Hi Mom, it’s me.”

“Michael?”

“Yes.”

The mother of NYPD Capt. Michael Gandolfi could tell her son was in trouble.

“Mom, if I sound weird, it’s because I was in an accident,” he said. “I broke my nose and they wired my jaw shut.”

He said he was calling from Florida. He’d been texting while driving and gotten into an accident, striking an expectant mother and killing the baby.

“Does Lauren know?” asked Mom.

“No, and please don’t tell her,” pleaded the caller — who now knew, based on Mom’s own statements, that her son was named Michael and her daughter-in-law was Lauren.

“Michael” said he was being arrested, and his phone seized for evidence, and if Mom needed to reach him, here’s the number of “my lawyer.”

Over the next two days, the purported lawyers called from that number, and let Mom know how much money was needed for bail; the attorney’s couriers would pick up the cash from her home. This was followed by two more cash pickups, for lawyer’s fees and Michael’s medical expenses.

Finally, on the third day, the attorney called and let Mom know that happily, Michael was being released from jail — she’d just have to make one more payment for final lawyer’s fees. Mom figured that by this time, with Michael out of jail, he’d have his cellphone back, so she dialed him.

Capt. Michael Gandolfi’s cellphone rang in his New York City home — right where he’d been all along, as his mother had unwittingly been giving much of her life savings to scam artists.

“Hi Michael, I have the rest of the money.”

“What money?”

“The money for the lawyer.”

Michael quickly realized that Mom had been scammed.

He told her to immediately call 911. Police came to her home and arrested the two men who arrived shortly thereafter to make the cash pickup — not the same men who had made previous pickups. The scam artists, based in the Dominican Republic, had a large network of couriers. Those two couriers are still the only people arrested for the crime perpetrated on Mom Gandolfi, who lost over $20,000.

***

Mom Gandolfi had fallen victim to the Parents/Grandparents Bail Scam — the callers tell the victim that their child or grandchild is in trouble with the law and needs cash for bail or lawyers’ fees.

Less common, but still occurring, is the Kidnap-Ransom Scam, in which the victim is told, usually by someone claiming to be their child or grandchild, that he or she has been kidnapped and cash is needed for ransom.

People still get calls from crooks pushing the old Tech Support Scam, in which they pretend to be from say, Microsoft, and say they have detected a problem with your computer that they will fix once you send money via a gift card; or they try to get you to log in to their site and click on a link that allows them to take over your computer.

***

Turning on her cellphone just after a Shabbos last spring, Tamar, a Long Island schoolteacher, noticed a missed call Friday evening from an 800 number. She Googled the number, and saw that it belonged to customer service at HSBC, where she had an account. Tamar figured that whatever the issue was, the bank would call back another time.

The call came two days later.

“Hi, this is the HSBC fraud department. We see some suspicious activity on your account. Did you make a $200 withdrawal at a Wells Fargo ATM in Texas?”

Just two months earlier, Tamar actually had fraudulent purchases on her account. So she didn’t think twice now before responding, “I can’t believe this is happening again; this just happened to me.” The caller replied, “Right, I see that here on your file.”

Thankful that the fraud had been detected, Tamar asked the caller to cancel her card and expedite shipping of a new card.

“Sure thing,” said the caller. “I’ll just need you to type in your PIN.”

Tamar typed the four numbers, but the caller said it wasn’t registering. After several more attempts, the caller asked her to just state the PIN. She complied. He assured her a new card would be in the mail and hung up immediately.

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“Just five minutes later,” recalls Tamar, “I started feeling sick to my stomach. So many things seemed off.”

She remembered that the last time there was fraud on her account, no one had called her; rather, she had received a text notification from the bank, advising her to call it. At that time, before calling the bank, she had logged onto her account and seen the fraudulent transactions. This time, she hadn’t done that, as she had been driving as the call came in.

She immediately called HSBC and asked if an agent from the fraud department had just called her. Told no, she said, “Cancel my card right this second.” Her card was canceled, but not before the scammers — who had apparently already stolen her card number and manufactured a new card, and had someone waiting by an ATM machine for the PIN number while they called her from a spoofed HSBC customer-service number — withdrew $300 from her account, at an ATM machine in a southern state.

***

Tamar had fallen victim to the Bank-Account Scam, in which a customer is told that there is an issue with their bank account or debit card. The scammers appear legitimate, as they have spoofed the bank’s phone number, or have sent emails purportedly from the bank — as anyone can put any name on an email address, which most people don’t scrutinize — with links to a website that looks just like the bank’s actual website.

Tamar was able to get back the funds from the bank, after signing an affidavit that that withdrawal had been fraudulent.

But most scam victims are not that lucky.

Deputy Inspector Corey advises anyone who thinks they’ve been scammed to immediately contact the bank through which they made the wire transfer, or the phone number on the gift cards whose numbers they gave the scammers, and ask that the transaction be stopped. In very rare cases, they can be.

Then you should notify your local police precinct, as well as the FBI and the FTC.

For those who’ve been scammed into emptying the cash from their account and shipping it to “the government” via FedEx — a scheme through which 26 New Yorkers lost a total of $819,000 this year — if authorities are notified in time, they can follow the package and arrest the person who picks it up.

But for the vast majority of scam victims, the money is unrecoverable.

That’s why law-enforcement agencies are focused on working with financial institutions, and on educating the public, to recognize these phone scams for what they are and try to prevent future victims.

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The NYPD is reaching out to banks to ensure that tellers are educated to be alert for suspicious withdrawals or wire transfers, and to inform those making such transactions that they may be the victim of a scam. The Department has posted warnings at Bitcoin ATMs alerting customers that if they are making deposits for the SSA or any other caller, that it is a scam. And it is working with stores such as Apple and with pharmacy chains to post such signs next to gift-card displays.

“At the end of the day,” says Corey, the gift-card companies and stores are also “profiting from this.”

“We are working with companies to try to find ways to defeat it, to make sure the education is going on at the point of sale, to make sure the customers are really asked about their gift-card purchase and that they’re told about scams.”

At least one store has a system in which customers purchasing gift cards must click on a pop-up screen, which informs them of scams.

“Some companies are more cooperative than others, and we’re trying to get everybody to be cooperative,” says Corey. “We really would like to just shut this whole thing down to where this thing doesn’t happen.”

The NYPD has partnered with the FTC to publish videos detailing many scams — to make the public aware that no government agency will ever call you demanding money via wire transfer, gift cards, Bitcoin ATM’s, FedExing cash, or any other method.

Legitimate private companies will never ask for money this way, either.

If you get a phone call from, for example, Con Edison, threatening to shut off your electricity if you don’t pay immediately by one of these methods, it is certainly a scam. Even if they ask you to pay by the traditional credit-card method — and even if you really do owe money to Con Ed — you can never be sure that they are who they say they are, even if they are calling from Con Ed’s real phone number. Hang up, and call Con Ed yourself. That way, you can be sure you are really reaching Con Ed.

And legitimate private companies, just like government agencies, will never ask you to give or “confirm” private information — like the “fraud department” caller who asked Tamar for her bank PIN number, or the “SSA” caller who asked Miriam to confirm her SSN. If you get a call purporting to be from your bank’s fraud department asking if you made certain purchases, you can simply tell them “yes” or “no” — but don’t give them any other information. The best thing is to hang up and call the bank yourself — so you know for certain you are speaking to the bank.

The numbers of reported Social Security Scam victims and loss-per-victim have soared in recent years. After a steady rise from 1,330 victims reported to the FTC for a total of $17,000 in 2015, to 1,517 for $79,000 in 2016, and 3,123 for $167,000 in 2017, there was a gargantuan leap to 39,426 victims for $11.6 million in 2018 and to over 139,000 victims in 2019, who lost a total of $29 million.

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An NYPD alert at a Brooklyn pharmacy gift-card stand. (Hamodia)

A portion of the increase might be attributable to better tracking and reporting of these crimes, but there is no doubt that the criminals are growing more sophisticated and bold, and better able to adapt and develop new schemes.

Just a few years ago, the IRS Scam — in which callers were told that they owed taxes and would be arrested if they did not pay the IRS immediately — was quite successful and prevalent. Over time, as law-enforcement warned the public about that scam, its success rate and frequency waned.

Likewise, as law enforcement is successful in educating the public about the Social Security, Boss Gift-Card, and other current scams, eventually the criminals will abandon those and come up with new ones.

But if people just keep in mind — and tell their friends and relatives — some basic tips, they should be safe, regardless of the nature of a particular scam:

  • No government entity will ever ask for money on a phone call.
  • No government entity, or company, will ever ask for money via Bitcoin ATM, wire transfer, gift card, or sending cash via FedEx.
  • No government agency or company will ever warn you against consulting with relatives.
  • If someone calls saying they are your relative and asking you to send money urgently via one of these unorthodox methods, be extremely wary. Call the person on their cellphone to make sure it is them — even if the caller had urged you not to call. Being urged not to call is a telltale sign of a scam.
  • No bank will ever call and ask for your PIN Number.
  • No bank or government entity will ever ask you to “verify” your Social Security number or credit card number.
  •  You can never be sure that a person you are speaking with is who he says he is; thanks to call spoofing, caller ID can be meaningless. Never conduct any financial business whatsoever unless you have placed the call yourself, to the number you know to be the correct number. Even if you do owe money to any sort of company, they’d never ask you to pay by non-traditional means. And even when paying by traditional means such as with a credit card, only do so if you have placed the call yourself to the correct number.

rborchardt@hamodia.com