American Community Survey: Big Brother or Scam?

A couple of months ago, we received a mailing, purportedly from the US Census Bureau, called "The American Community Survey." It's more than a census; it asks detailed personal and financial questions which, quite frankly, include things I wouldn't tell my own mother, let alone the US Census Bureau.

Besides asking the address, the names of everyone who lives here, and their birthdays (ideal information for identify theft), it asks questions like:

  • Race of each person in the home. (I didn't even think that was legal to ask!).
  • How many bedrooms are in this house. (What, are they planning on moving in?)
  • Does the house have running water? Hot water? A flush toilet? (Obviously they plan on staying for a while!)
  • How many vehicles are kept at the home? (They must be bringing their own car.)
  • Last month, what was the cost of electricity for this home? (I hope they plan on splitting the cost of utilities while they're staying with us.)
  • Is this a house, apartment or mobile home? (Beggars can't be choosers, I say!)
  • Does the monthly rent include meals? (It's a house, not a B&B!)
  • What were your wages, salary, commisions, bonuses or tops from all jobs, interest, dividends and rental income, accurate to the nearest dollar. (Do they promise not to compare with the IRS?)

The instructions state "The law requires that you provide the information asked in this survey to the best of your knowledge." (emphasis not added by me). On the other hand, I got an email recently that required me to provide my name, credit card number and mother's maiden name to some eBay-look-alike web site; I didn't fall for that one either. So I read the survey carefully, then tossed it in the recycling bin.

Then I started to get the phone calls.

Of course, I get phone calls all the time, from people claiming to be with the government, with the UK National Lottery Commission, a Swiss probate lawyer for my late, apparently estranged great uncle Harold Steinman who recently died and named me as his sole heir, and even representatives from God himself (why they need to use a phone, I'll never understand). This is what caller ID is for.

After two more postcards, and another copy of the survey, I started thinking, hey, even if this does look phony and smell of a scam, maybe this really is legit. So I went to the US Census Bureau web site to see if there was anything about an "American Community Survey" for 2007. Nope, nothing. There was a survey in 2006, but no mention of a survey in 2007. No way to confirm that this survey is legit.

I checked the address on the postage-paid envelop:

    DIRECTOR
    U.S. CENSUS BUREAU
    PO BOX 5240
    JEFFERSONVILLE, IN 47199-5240
Clearly, these spoofers don't know that the US Census Bureau is in Washington, DC! Plus the all-caps style is a dead giveaway of spammers. I also checked the Census Bureau web site, and they don't even list an office in Indiana; the midwest regional office is:
    U.S. Census Bureau
    Chicago Regional Office
    1111 W. 22nd Street, Suite 400
    Oak Brook, IL. 60523-1918
Even if the survey is real, maybe some scammer repackaged it with their own self-addressed envelop? Maybe all of the questions are real, but I'm sending the information to some theif in Indiana.

The instructions include an 800 phone number. But I learned long ago that if you call an 800 number, your phone number is transmitted to the callee, even if you have caller id blocking set up. Telemarketers use this to capture your phone number, and map street addresses to phone numbers. (I know; I had a friend, a software engineer, who worked for a company that did just that. Her specific software project was designed to call people at all times of the day, just to find out when you answer your phone. That way, they could sell your phone number and the times you're most likely to answer to other telemarketers. She eventually quit her job out of guilt.) And if I did call the 800 number and the guy on the other end said, "Ah, yeah, sure, this is the government. Please send us all your info stuff.", should I really believe them?

At this point, I'm starting to think that maybe, just maybe, this survey thing is legit, but the goverment is entirely inept and clueless about authentication and identify theft. If they really want me to fill out this survey, or the 2010 census in two years, they really should:

  • Provide a way I can authenticate that the survey came from the US government. Giving me a phone number is useless; anyone can get a phone number these days. Instead, the instructinos should provide something more authentic, like the URL of a web page, based off of census.gov, that confirms the survey is authentic.
  • Provide a way I can ensure that my data is really going to the right authorities, for example, on the web site list the address that should be on the return envelop.
  • Encourage, no mandate that everyone visit the web site, and verify the address on the envelop before they mail their response! Anything less is just encouraging people to believe whatever they get in the mail with an official-looking seal; it's tantamount to abetting identity theft.
  • Allow people to fill out the survey on the web. Personally, I trust ssl encryption far more than I trust my local mail carrier. On the other hand, I don't really trust the government to secure their servers, so maybe that's a bad idea, too.

Finally, I thought to google '"po box 5240" jeffersonville', and got a hit. Looks like this is a real survey from the Census Bureau, albeit conducted in one of the most shady, disreputable, and hard-to-authenticate manners possible.

In an age where identify theft is a serious business, the US Census Bureau should be keenly aware that the information they process is highly confidential, and a ripe area for theives to exploit. Clearly, based on my personal experience, they haven't gotten that message yet.

Comments:

And to add insult to injury, they seemed to have disabled their Ask a Question link as well. How nice...

Josh

Posted by Josh Simons on January 08, 2008 at 08:39 AM EST #

So you don't know if this real or not? Ok, I will do the leg work for you. I will post on my maoe when I findout.

Oh and I have worked for the census before, so I don't think this is real.

Posted by Leodus on February 05, 2008 at 06:01 AM EST #

I don't know what to do. After I got the first one and filled it out, I went online before I mailed it because I felt very uncomfortable. I read all the horror stories of people who chose not to fill it out and the harassment that ensued. Even though it has done a good job at scaring the crap out of me I chose not to send it.
I just got another one. I'm thinking of putting Jane & John Doe and 2 people reside here and sending it in.
This really makes me angry.

Posted by Mary on May 25, 2008 at 06:29 AM EDT #

I was looking for verification myself, for the very same reasons. Why would the census want to know how many rooms in my house? I too think this is a scam, but how do we know?

Posted by Debra Leonard on June 17, 2008 at 05:53 AM EDT #

I too, like you (or rather my wife) has received numerous phone calls requesting very (extremely) personal information - like where do you work - how much do you make, how long have you been at your job, how many children - what are their ages etc.....etc.....we voluntarily participated until the calls got very annoying/frequent and extremely personal. Now, we have stopped picking up the phone and screen all calls - so that any calls from people whom we do not recognize go straight to teh answering machine - and of course they leave a message with a phone number to call back - which we never do.

Posted by Joseph N. Mathew on June 19, 2008 at 02:25 AM EDT #

OK, I went to the Federal U.S. Census Bureau site, dug a bit and found this:

https://ask.census.gov/cgi-bin/askcensus.cfg/php/enduser/popup_adp.php?p_sid=-YmLqH6j&p_lva=6459&p_li=&p_faqid=781&p_created=1103807925&p_sp=cF9zcmNoPSZwX3NvcnRfYnk9JnBfZ3JpZHNvcnQ9JnBfcm93X2NudD0mcF9wcm9kcz0mcF9jYXRzPSZwX3B2PSZwX2N2PSZwX3BhZ2U9MQ\*\*#01

Copy and past that mess and read about it. It appears it is real, but makes me wonder why and what good only 480 households (aren't we lucky?) are chosen in an area to fill it out. I'm wondering... How many of you that got this have filed petitions on line for political reasons? For anything, say, stop mountaintop strip mining, impeach the president, things like that?

Posted by Debra Leonard on June 19, 2008 at 06:53 AM EDT #

I should have said the survey is sent to one household out of 480 (still an odd number to me) and if that link does not work, go to the U. S. Census Bureau and search American Community Survey and they have a list of answers about it. I still don't like it, but I guess I'll send it in.

Posted by D. Leonard on June 19, 2008 at 06:59 AM EDT #

Welcome to the CB taxpayer funded extortion ring! The usual plan is to annoy you with mail for 30 days, phone calls for 30 days and visits for 30 days. The purpose of all this is because a creative group of data junkies have lobbyed congress for this info to suport their research, which is peddled back to these same congressmen for vote pandering at election time. No one will be procecuted for not filling out the survey. The CB considers a completed form to contain 5 data points, which contributed to the reported 97% response rate. The response rate is really somewhere between 50-70% depending upon area receiving the ACS. After receiving the ACS this year, if you don't move, you might get it again in 5 years. This survey is put out below the radar to keep the public outrage down.

Posted by cathy on June 27, 2008 at 09:09 AM EDT #

Ooh shit!!! I was filling out the 2nd package after I ignored the first one, halfway I really felt uncomfortable with the whole thing. Why would I be choosen at random in a legal census? I thought in a census everybody gets counted, not random selections!!! Is the US capital now in Indiana?. I googled the address and this site came up. They put "negro" as a choice of my race-- Shame!!.Thanks a million to whoever put it up.

Posted by guest on October 20, 2008 at 06:44 PM EDT #

I don't see what all the fuss is about. The from is legitimate.

We got this long form survey and were happy to fill it out. We can always omit questions we don't want to answer. If this helps the US government in some way, it's not too much to ask.

Posted by Charles Gervasi on February 28, 2009 at 06:27 AM EST #

Do you REALLY want to send someone information on your kids, their ages, and what time you leave for work in the morning???

R U KIDDING ME???

They have NEVER fined anyone.

ADVICE: IGNORE THE MAIL, IGNORE THE CALLS, IGNORE THE VISIT. THEY WILL GO AWAY AFTER 90 DAYS.

Posted by Chuck on April 07, 2009 at 12:56 PM EDT #

I Ignored them and their consistent efforts - made an excel spreadsheet with all the phone calls, times and originating numbers (and some of those who were making the calls were from the neigborhood)....and i've heard nothing from them for the past 4 months.
They cannot fine you.....they can't do sqaut. They prey on citizens who genuinely fear being hounded by the govt....if you 'stick it' to them...they will move on to their nexst target.

Posted by Joe Mathew on April 07, 2009 at 04:14 PM EDT #

According to the constitution the census is legally for enumeration purposes only. This is to establish how many citizens are in a given area for allotment of government representation. The ACS is another ploy for the government, which is supposed to be FOR the people, BY the people, to know everything about everyone. They are even threatening us with fines. There has to be some unity among those of us who find this "survey" beyond intrusive. Confidentiality is promised but only within government associated companies which means any company associated with the Census Bureau. Check into those companies! There are far too many for any of that information to stay confidential. The greedy mongers are just salivating awaiting the information that some intimidated American citizens have voluntarily filled in on this survey. Do Not Fill It Out!!! It Is UNCONSTITUTIONAL!!!

Posted by J.Q Public on June 24, 2009 at 07:28 PM EDT #

I on the other hand feel the survey is a huge benifit to us Americans. The survey gives the Federal Government information on how to improve our great country. The survey allocates funds to our childern's schools and our local hosipitals. Let's keep the government informed, being uninformed is only a downfall. Many of you seem to be uninformed, shame on you Americans... Educate yourselfs. I spoke to a Census Representives (when I called the 1800 number) and she was very well spoken, and very helpful in explaining the questions since I wanted to answer all the questions to the best of my ability.

I LOVE YOU "BIG BROTHER". ;)

Posted by Frank Bush II on June 27, 2009 at 11:11 PM EDT #

Robert Hueston and some of the others here sound like some of the CAVE people I've seen (CAVE = Citizens Against Virtually Everything)

Posted by rochon on November 13, 2009 at 10:55 AM EST #

this is cool, this is what we want dude......

Posted by links of london on November 28, 2009 at 01:11 PM EST #

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