American Community Survey: The scam that keeps on scamming
By Bob Hueston on Feb 03, 2008
Two weeks after mailing in the survey, we started to get phone calls from a mysterious 800 number. No name on the caller id, just a number.
After, literally, hundreds of these unanswered calls, we slipped. I was traveling and my wife answered the call, despite the anonymous caller id, thinking it might be from a hotel or calling card. But it was someone claiming to be from the Census Bureau wanting to "verify" our answers to the American Community Scam. If these calls were really from the Census Bureau, why would the caller id name be blocked? Obviously, this is a follow-on scam.
My wife was polite, but cautious. She confirmed the names of the people living in the house (information you can get from a multitude of sources). But when the caller started asking specific questions about our finances, she wisely stopped. "How do I know you're really from the Census Bureau?" she asked. After she refused to answer any more questions, the caller told her she would need to call another 800 number to verify his authenticity.
If I were to setup up a scam, I'd do just this. Specifically, I'd call numbers from the phone book at random and ask, "I'm calling about the American Community Survey you recently submitted." If the resident hadn't received the survey, I'd hang up. But if they had received it and returned it, I'd ask them to "verify" their answers, and proceed to ask their names, social security numbers, and financial information. If they refused to answer and demanded some form of authentication, I'd give them an 800 number they could call. When they did, my partner would answer the phone saying, "US Census Bureau, American Community Survey department. How can I help you." OK, we'd want this to sound like the government, so maybe he wouldn't be so polite. But anyway, he'd "confirm" that the previous caller was indeed from the government, and that they had to answer every question asked.
How many people would fall for a scam like that? I'd bet 90% of the US population, based on the number of people that forward me junk emails about Microsoft paying out $100 each time that email was forwarded.
Ironically, the US Department of Justic, has a web page on Identify Thelft and Fraud. On that page, the DOJ gives some good advice about avoiding identify theft at home, including:
- Start by adopting a "need to know" approach to your personal data. A person who calls you and says he's from your bank doesn't need to know information if it's already on file with your bank; the only purpose of such a call is to acquire that information for that person's personal benefit.
- If someone you don't know calls you on the telephone and asks you for personal data -- such as your Social Security number, credit card number or expiration date, or mother's maiden name -- ask them to send you a written application form.
- If they won't do it, hang up.
- If they will, review the application carefully when you receive it and make sure it's going to an institution that's well-known and reputable.